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5 Ways City's School Food Director is Transforming Cafeteria Menus

By Amy Zimmer | June 2, 2015 7:52am
 School Food Director Stephen O'Brien is being honored Tuesday with a $10,000 Sloan Public Service Award.
School Food Director Stephen O'Brien is being honored Tuesday with a $10,000 Sloan Public Service Award.
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Sarah Shatz

QUEENS — Using more locally sourced produce, cutting out artificial chemicals and getting students to be official taste-testers — these are some of the big changes in New York City public school cafeterias that are making them a model for districts across the country.

The quiet revolution of the city's school food program toward a more healthful menu for its 950,000 daily meals began in earnest six years ago when Stephen O'Brien took over as Director of Food and Menu Management at the Office of School Food in Long Island City.

O'Brien is one of six New York City civil servants who will be honored Tuesday with a Sloan Public Service Award, considered the Nobel Prize of city government. 

The annual award, presented by the Fund for the City of New York at Cooper Union, includes a $10,000 cash prize.

O'Brien, a Hell's Kitchen resident, started with School Food 24 years ago as a service manager overseeing cafeterias at two Upper West Side high schools and a special needs school. He's since held various jobs in the system.

Here are some of the changes O'Brien has overseen:

1. Cutting down on chemicals in school food.

Not only has O'Brien led the charge on banning artificial colors and sweeteners, he's also helped steer food away from fat substitutes, preservatives and caffeine and more recently from dough stabilizers known as Azodicarbonamide, a chemical that's also used in yoga mats and other rubbery products.

By next fall, there will no longer be foods in the cafeteria using high fructose corn syrup.

"We don't want to be in a situation where we're buying specialty products because you have to pay a premium for that," O'Brien said. "So we work with manufacturers to plan [to remove ingredients from their products] and set realistic goals."

In doing so, he noted, "we're setting the bar higher for the industry."

2. Bringing salad bars and whole grains into cafeterias

Of the more than 1,200 schools that have kitchens, more than 1,000 of them now have salad bars, O'Brien said.

And though the federal mandate of schools using 51 percent or more whole grains was recently rolled back to 50 percent, New York City isn't planning to revert, O'Brien said.

3. A greater focus on where ingredients come from

When O'Brien assumed his role as director he started tracking where the ingredients in school food were coming from.

By keeping tabs on what was coming from New York State or elsewhere, it helped his team pinpoint where there was room to buy more locally, and School Food began working more closely with the state's agricultural commissioner to source more from New York.

"Anything we can get in the area, we try to do and over the past six years that's increased," O'Brien said. Apples now come from the state, as do cabbage, onions, tomatoes, lettuce, peaches and melons when they're in season.

"Now we're taking it further," he added, "trying to figure out what markets are we not aware of, that we should be tapping," including "minimally processed" pre-made food that cafeterias heat up.

4. Getting compostable plates into cafeterias

Schools this month began phasing in compostable plates in cafeterias. By next year, all schools will have the eco-friendly alternative to Styrofoam, which is considered a "possible" human carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency. 

City schools, which under O'Brien have implemented "Trayless Tuesdays," teamed up with the country's other large districts as part of the Urban School Food Alliance to combine their purchasing power and bring the cost of the plates to below 5 cents, down from 12 cents.

Switching to a less institutional looking shape, he said, was part of the way to "re-energize" and "elevate" the school-food dining experience.

They do, however, still have compartments for different types of food because "through our research and development, we found students don't want their foods to touch each other."

5. Giving students a voice as taste-testers

School Food invites classes on Wednesdays and Thursdays to its Long Island City headquarters for a three hour visit that includes taste-testing new dishes, an education talk about careers in food management and a buffet lunch.

Among other things, the taste tests revealed students don't like chia bars, healthy fiber-packed bars made from chia seeds or crunchy garbanzo beans.

"It had too much crunch for them," O'Brien said. "We're seeing students want softer foods."

They like pre-made sandwiches, cheese calzones and empanadas.

The program, which started as a pilot in May 2014, expects to have 2,000 students visit every year.