MOTT HAVEN — Partially defrosted pizza, still-cold taco meat and other school lunch items are so unappetizing that sophomore Timothy Martinez sometimes doesn't even feel like showing up for class at the Bronx Academy of Letters.
Though Martinez and his peers qualify for free lunch, they often skip meals and go hungry because the cafeteria food is inedible, they said. Now, the students are raising awareness about the issue through IntegrateNYC4me, a new activist group at their high school that focuses on segregation and other issues in the city's public schools.
"When they serve us pizza, sometimes it's not reheated all the way and you can see the frozen pieces in the dough," Martinez said. "It's the same thing with the taco meat. And they serve us ices instead of juice," he said of the still-unthawed juices students get for breakfast.
Martinez believes that cafeteria food is a particularly important issue at schools like Bronx Academy of Letters, where 98 percent of students are black or Latino and more than 90 percent qualify for free lunch. Many students must choose between eating free school lunches and going hungry, he said.
"I'm not saying my school is bad," Martinez said. "But for lunch, we'd like pizza that's at least well done."
While some schools — especially in wealthy neighborhoods like the Upper West Side, Upper East Side and Greenwich Village — are growing their own fresh food in rooftop gardens or switching to to the city's healthier alternative menu, schools like the Bronx Academy of Letters are left behind, Martinez believes.
Martinez and other students want to see more fresh and healthy options, beyond the apples given out at lunch and the tiny salad bar stocked only with lettuce, tomatoes and pickles, which is rarely used. (The school does have a small urban garden, but its produce is sold to the community at a low cost and is not used in the cafeteria.)
But students worry that their cafeteria staff is too overwhelmed to make changes, since the middle and high school at Morris Avenue and East 140th Street shares a building with another middle school and two elementary schools.
On a recent afternoon, sophomore Justin Minaya looked sadly down at the roasted chicken wings and drumsticks on his Styrofoam tray, refusing to taste them. He took one bite of the sweet potato wedge fries before pushing them aside.
"There's not much taste to them," he said of the fries. "The chicken looks too greasy. It's just frozen food that's been reheated. It's not appetizing."
Minaya skips lunch about three times a week and by the last period of the day he is so tired that, "I just want to put my head down," he said. He usually naps during the study period after classes end and before basketball practice starts, he said.
The students at the Bronx Academy of Letters aren't alone.
Only 38 percent of New York City high school students, on average, eat the meals served in school cafeterias, although about 75 percent of city high schoolers qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, according to a study from Community Food Advocates.
The quality of the food affects whether high school students will eat it, said Sarah Camiscoli, a teacher at the Bronx Academy of Letters who works with the IntegrateNYC4me students. She has heard from teachers at other New York City public schools with low-income students that unappealing food is a widespread issue.
"What they are provided with is unappetizing and unsatisfying," Camiscoli said. "There is much more effort [on the DOE's part] put into thinking about fine tuning the logistics of state exams rather than the logistics of nutritional needs of students on free lunch."
Another reason high school students don't eat free school food is because of the stigma attached to it, the Community Food Advocates study found.
"It’s just not cool to eat school food in high school at any price, and particularly if it’s free," the study said.
Many high school students view school meals as something only for poor kids and believe the food is "inferior," the study found.
At one school, for instance, researchers found that students lined up to pay $1 for fries from the "a la carte" menu, rather than getting the fries for free along with four other items as part of a school meal.
Getting students to eat school meals goes a long way toward fighting hunger, especially for low-income families, and helps improve students' educational performance, advocates said.
"Issues of school lunch are important to students across the U.S.," said Brandon Cardet-Hernandez, principal of the Bronx Academy of Letters. "It's exciting to see our students talking about food in a community that is often under-resourced."
DOE officials defended the cafeteria options in the city's public schools, saying school kitchens use frozen foods that have been "minimally processed" to ensure that food is safe.
Using pre-cooked frozen meats allows cafeterias to minimize risks associated with raw foods and reduce the chances for cross contamination, officials explained.
The city's SchoolFood office has increased healthy offerings by switching to whole-grain pastas and banning artificial colors and flavors, officials added. The DOE tries out new dishes in a test kitchen in Long Island City and allows students to do tastings and provide feedback on creations like butternut squash ravioli and a whole-grain bean-and-cheese burrito, DOE spokesman Harry Hartfield said.
"We are proud of our work to bring healthy and delicious food options to schools across the city and look forward to continuing to improve these options," Hartfield said.