For school students around the world, lunchtime arguably represents one of the most important parts of the day. It offers the chance for children to nutritionally recharge their batteries and feed their brains ahead of afternoon classes. So with that in mind, despite the financial difficulties some education authorities may face, free school meals are vital to a significant number of children. However, New York City’s public schools have recently faced a grilling over free lunches after some stomach-churning evidence emerged.
At the start of the school year in September 2017, New York public schools lunches were made free of charge. Due to the financial constraints of many NYC families, the move had long been backed by senior local government officials. A number of food experts and several individuals on the New York City Council were particularly forthright in their views.
Of the 1.1 million students attending New York public schools, a significant percentage were already eligible to receive free lunches prior to that decision. Officials claimed that 75 percent of the city’s student body qualified for free or reduced-priced meals as a result of poverty. With the new initiative in place, however, an additional 200,000 children would now be able to access lunch free of charge. This move would have an annual cost to NYC of $750 million.
However, families with school-age children were subsequently set to save about $300 per head every year, with the full-price of a school lunch standing at $1.75 per day. “This is about equity,” Carmen Fariña, the schools chancellor for the city, told the New York Times newspaper. “All communities matter,” she emphasized.
As a result of the decision, New York has now joined Boston, Chicago, Dallas and Detroit in offering free lunches to schoolchildren. Yet, unlike those other cities, the Big Apple has significantly more children to feed on a daily basis. Unfortunately, however, the free-school-meal initiative has reheated another of the city’s problems – one that originally emerged several months before.
Towards the end of March 2017, the safety of the food served in New York’s public school cafeterias was brought sharply into question. Photos of moldy pizza, metal nails in meals and pieces of metal inside chicken portions were made public by Marcia Kramer, a political reporter at the city’s CBS2 network. The shocking images were provided by a whistleblower inside NYC’s department of education.
However, these problems were by no means restricted to just one school at the time. It was reported that between February 17 and March 13, 2017, there were four complaints to the department of education regarding the poor state of pizza served in schools across New York. Similarly, bones were found in chicken four times in September 2016, with a cafeteria worker requiring the Heimlich maneuver to able to breathe after choking on one of them.
Due to the department of education’s reluctance to talk about the matter when approached by Kramer, the reporter went higher up the food chain. She took her unpalatable findings to lawyer Letitia James, New York City Public Advocate. “This is just alarming,” James told CBS2 when presented with the photographic evidence in late March 2017. “This mold, and this metal in the chicken nuggets is alarming and disturbing,” she added.
“We need to suspend these contracts immediately,” James continued, telling Kramer, “We need to get to the bottom of this.” Unsurprisingly, a number of NYC school students began to shun their school cafeteria’s fare at that time, with the damning photos in the media informing and justifying their stance.
But six months after this rash of bad publicity, and just two months following the passing of the free-lunch initiative, the shocking state of NYC public school food was back on the media menu. First, a student in the Bronx found a piece of metal in their popcorn chicken lunch. And then five second-grade students in Brooklyn were taken ill after consuming food and drink from their school.
The Brooklyn schoolchildren reportedly became sick after drinking milk and eating two different varities of sandwich from their school. Yet, while a leaked email sent to CBS2 revealed that officials were to hold back on the distribution of 2,000-plus cases of popcorn chicken, the same could not be said for sandwiches.
A representative from the NYC department of education informed CBS2 that the sandwiches would remain part of the city’s public school food offering. “There are no indications that the symptoms were the result of food eaten during lunch,” they told Marcia Kramer, adding, “We are looking into it and providing additional support to the school.”
However, much like the pizza and chicken, sandwiches in New York public schools have long been a problem. In the winter of 2016, images emerged of a salami-and-cheese example filled with what looked like moldy meat. Meanwhile another photo was released showing a moldy egg-and-cheese breakfast sandwich.
Perhaps more worryingly, several other issues have been raised regarding the dire state of food in NYC public schools. CBS2 has been informed of chocolate milk that was curdled and a beef burger that contained a long pinkish worm. Desserts were affected too, with fruit cups contaminated with pieces of plastic. To top it all off – unbelievably – a kale salad had a garden snake hiding in its leaves. So good luck to any kid going for the healthy option.
As the media uproar grew with each new distressing finding, claims emerged alleging a conflict of interest. Kramer reported in November 2017 that some department of education executives annually attended the prestigious National Restaurant Show. Nothing untoward about that fact alone, until Kramer discovered how their presence at the Chicago event was being paid for. Apparently, the manufacturers under contract to NYC to provide free school lunches were picking up the tab.
Mere months after initially voicing her concerns, Public Advocate James was once again angered by a free lunch scandal. “It’s an inherent conflict,” she told the CBS2 cameras. “A million-plus children eat in our public schools each and every day, and in some cases, it’s their only food [for that day] and it’s really outrageous.”
“Clearly, it is unacceptable,” James continued. “The number-one rule is you cannot accept gifts from the people you are doing business with.” The situation was compounded when another report indicated that four executives from the department of education had enjoyed trips around the country. Once again public school lunch providers were alleged to be footing the bill.
James called for action from the head of the department of education, the New York City Schools Chancellor. James said, “I’m calling upon the chancellor – Chancellor Carmen Fariña – to overhaul this particular unit, to immediately suspend these individuals, and to put in place some standards and some oversight.”
This particular fight continues to rage between those at the high table of New York politics. But it is vital that the ordinary children of the city are treated as the priority in this distasteful episode. After all, they are the ones who have been faced with the shocking consequences on a daily basis at lunchtime.
New York’s initiative for free public school lunches remains a fantastic idea for the city’s schoolchildren and their families. Unfortunately, however, it appears that greedy and corrupt individuals have left a bad taste in the mouths of NYC students. The children attend the city’s schools to feed their minds, not poison their bodies.