MANHATTAN — The food served in the city's public schools has grown healthier in the past few years as whole-grain pasta, baked French fries and salad bars have become the norm.
But many school cafeterias are also still serving what the Department of Education calls "fan favorites" — mozzarella sticks, chicken tenders and burger sliders among them — prompting parents, principals, chefs and nonprofits to organize a major effort to change schools' cafeteria culture.
A good first step for parents who want their kids to eat healthier is to work with the school to adopt the city's little-known "alternative" lunch menu, which has fewer processed foods, more plant-based options and no beef or pork and is currently used in several dozen schools across the city, experts said.
Equally important is convincing kids to try the new, healthier foods on the menu, advocates said. Since children are more likely to taste foods after seeing how they're grown, families can support school efforts to start gardens— no matter how small.
Parents can also encourage schools to work with nonprofits that have developed nutrition-based classes linked to gardening, like Edible Schoolyard NYC, or groups like Wellness in the Schools (WITS), which bring professionally trained chefs into school kitchens.
Mary Lenz, a parent at Greenwich Village's P.S. 41, initially struggled to build support when she tried to bring WITS' cooking and nutrition education program to the school four years ago. She raised about $12,000, or half the cost of the program, on her own.
"I would always shop at the farmers market and thought, wouldn't it be great if our kids could eat food like this instead of what comes out of a box?" said Lenz, co-chair of the Wellness Committee at P.S. 41, where her daughter is now in fifth grade.
"We didn't realize how hard it would be."
Since then, the school's Wellness Committee has grown from 10 regulars to 50 and many parents appreciate the changes on the menu, Lenz said.
The committee is now working on getting more kids to eat the healthy offerings — a challenge many schools face.
"You can't just change food and expect kids to eat it. Kids are not necessarily drawn to healthy things," said Kate Brashares, executive director of Edible Schoolyard NYC, which creates a "seed-to-table" curriculum.
"Obviously, the food needs to taste better," she added. "Fundamental to changing behavior and eating behaviors is doing it in a way that's positive."
Here's how local groups are trying to change school food — and get kids to eat it:
1. Adopt the alternative menu and bring cooking back into school cafeterias.
The city's alternative menu, which launched in 2011, is currently used in only 82 of the city's roughly 1,800 public schools.
Food advocates prefer it because it involves more meals made from scratch instead of processed, like herb-roasted chicken and curried tofu with rice and vegetarian chili.
There is also a separate vegetarian-only menu used in Flushing's P.S. 244.
Parents should talk with their principal about using the alternative menu, since that's who makes the decision to implement it.
The alternative menu costs roughly the same as the regular menu, according to DOE officials.
"There's much more real food on that menu," said Reana Kovalcik, development coordinator of WITS, an organization founded in 2005 by parents who wanted their kids to have healthier food.
"The great thing is we can smell food cooking."
WITS works with about 60 schools, matching them with professionally trained chefs for three years through its Cook for Kids program. WITS requires these schools to use the alternative menu.
"There's no way to talk about healthy eating and ingredients and serve a kid a mozzarella stick," Kovalcik said.
SchoolFood recently removed Azodicarbonamide — a chemical used as a dough conditioner in bread that's also used in yoga mats — from its products. It also prohibits artificial colors and flavors as well as a number of additional artificial ingredients, fat substitutes, preservatives and caffeine, DOE officials said.
Kovalcik advised that parents push for a full list of ingredients to be published online for every dish served to their child.
"That would help parents feel better about some things [served in cafeterias] and help them advocate against what they don't like," she said.
2. Hire chefs to train school cooks.
One way to improve the quality of the food in schools is to teach new skills to the cooks.
WITS' Cook for Kids program, whose executive chef is Michelin Star-rated Bill Telepan, brings in graduates from top culinary schools to work alongside school food staff, helping with recipe development and training in basic culinary skills needed to execute those recipes.
One technique the chefs teach is mise en place, the setup prep of dicing veggies and putting them in separate bowls before actually beginning to cook.
One of the group's chefs, Ivan Beacco, of the Italian restaurant Acqua at the South Street Seaport, recently did a well-received knife skills training for school food staff, Kovalcik said.
"They're bringing culinary [skills] back to the cafeteria," Kovalcik said. "And that doesn't mean squash risotto or braised rabbit. It doesn't mean we're being elitist. We're just talking about real food, not fancy food."
WITS runs a three-year program for participating schools, with chefs helping out in the cafeteria kitchen nearly every day for the first year. The program costs $50,000 in all, but nearly all participating schools receive a subsidy from WITS.
3. Get kids growing food — even if it's not a big garden.
When kids sees kale sprouting or dig carrots from the earth, they're more likely to try the fresh vegetables, advocates say, which is why many groups are now focusing on creating small-scale, low-cost food-growing programs in schools.
There are 436 registered school gardens through Grow to Learn NYC, run by city agencies and GrowNYC, which oversees the city's greenmarkets. Gardens can be funded in part through Grow to Learn's $500 to $2,000 mini grants, with the next round of applications due in February.
Schools can have gardens even without a large, sunny outdoor space.
The Upper West Side's P.S. 811, which serves students with special needs, recently received two hydroponic towers that are sprouting kale and Swiss chard from inside the school's pre-K classrooms.
The towers, which use light bulbs and water to grow plants indoors without soil, cost about $1,000 each and are part of a program WITS is piloting and hopes to roll out to nearly a dozen other schools next year.
"Not all schools have roofs or recess areas for outdoor gardens," Kovalcik said. "The tower can also go outside if you have a great, sunny outdoor area. If not, in can be in a classroom or cafeteria."
Edible Schoolyard NYC, which has two outdoor "showcase" gardens in city schools and is adding three more, is also creating a new, smaller-scale model that will be less expensive and less labor-intensive, in hopes of creating a new network of nearly 30 gardens at schools.
The program is expected to identify participating schools in April and start the gardens in September.
"We really believe if you grow or see it grown and touch it you will eat it," Brashares said.
Research finds that kids who have a consistent connection to a garden are more willing to try new things, echoed Jessie Kerr-Vanderslice, of Grow to Learn.
"It changes the way you behave when you walk into a market or what you ask for when you're at home," she said. "These are simple things but they make huge differences in behavior."
4. Teach kids to cook.
Making food also means kids will be more likely eat it, advocates say.
"A child who ignored [a certain food] nine times in [the] lunch room, then, for the 10th time, made it themselves in the lab, and now they're totally into it," Kovalcik said of a seasonal cooking class where kids make a dish with farm-fresh food.
The NY Coalition for Healthy School Food, whose nutrition education curriculum, "Food UnEarthed" is being used in four schools, includes a handful of food prep lessons where kids make things like trail mix, guacamole and plant-based sushi rolls.
Amie Hamlin, the organization's executive director, said developing healthful eating habits is an important lesson for kids to learn young.
"This is a life skill," she said.