There is such a thing as a free lunch (and breakfast) at New York City public schools. But what’s in those meals is being scrutinized by parents and elected officials, to the point one councilman has convinced his colleagues to advocate for change.
Councilman Fernando Cabrera, whose district includes parts of Kingsbridge, led the effort to pass a council resolution last month banning processed meats from school lunches. As the city council doesn’t have that kind of authority over the schools, the resolution is more of a recommendation for the city’s education department.
Processed meats include pepperoni, deli meats, hot dogs, bacon and sausages. The World Health Organization says such processed meats are carcinogenic, adding there is “sufficient evidence” they could cause colorectal cancer in people.
Cabrera joined forces with Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams on the measure. Although Cabrera’s district doesn’t reach that borough, the two men have something in common — both have adopted plant-based diets following health mishaps.
“Processed meats are very, very unhealthy,” said Claire McLeveighn, Cabrera’s communications director. “They’re unhealthy for adults, all the moreso for children. The process of curing involves certain chemicals that have been shown to be carcinogenic for decades.”
Processed meats are high in sodium and fat, two things that are not good for healthy living, said Lauren Cruz, a registered dietician at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore.
“It can be detrimental to the pediatric population,” she said. “Especially with increases in pediatric hypertension and diabetes.”
Fresh cuts of meat are a better alternative, Cruz added. Even better — and often less expensive — are plant-based proteins like chickpeas, lentils or tofu.
“Half of your plate should be fruits and vegetables,” Cruz said. “A quarter vegetables, a little less than a quarter fruit, a quarter protein, and a quarter grain.”
With the Bronx experiencing some of the worst levels of healthiness in the state, providing healthy lunches in schools is all the more important, McLeveighn said.
“There are so many kids for whom the food they get at school is the only real food they get all day,” she said. “If the school is feeding them hot dogs, pepperoni on pizza and deli meats, that’s most of what they’re eating.”
Victoria Averbukh, a parent of a P.S. 81 student, calls public school lunches a “double standard.” Students learn about eating healthy, but then they arrive at the cafeteria and are served unhealthy options. Even available healthy options can be underwhelming, especially for young students.
“They have pizza, all the kids say the pizza is very soggy, with a side of beans,” Averbukh said. “I don’t know anybody who can eat pizza with beans. As a fruit, they give them a piece of orange. One piece of orange is not enough.”
The city is trying to help, she said. But still, Averbukh would prefer to see more salads and fresh, healthy items served in cafeterias.
Schools chancellor Richard Carranza has another controversial suggestion: Remove chocolate milk. While processed lunch meats can be seen as universally unhealthy, Cruz believes chocolate milk is something a little different.
“It’s kind of a battle,” she said. “You want kids to have dairy and calcium. If they’re not willing, chocolate milk is an alternative that kids enjoy.”
Although her kids were “very, very sad” about Carranza’s potential ban, Averbukh supports it.
“For my kids, I don’t want them to drink chocolate milk every day,” she said. “For my kids, I use it as a treat for something.”
If the only way a child will drink milk is if there’s chocolate in it, then that lifestyle is just unhealthy, Averbukh said. She believes there’s too much sugar present in children’s diets already, and that it should be cut out.
While it’s not clear whether the education department will act on either proposed ban, Cruz believes there are ways to keep kids healthy in the meantime.
“You have to make it fun for them, incorporate them into meal planning,” Cruz said. “Kids like to be in control of themselves, especially when it comes to foods. Take kids grocery shopping, then have them cut vegetables, even gardening. They like seeing where food comes from, how it’s cooked and prepared.”
Averbukh, who runs the newspaper club at P.S. 81, feels her students already are engaged in healthy habits.
“Every year, we have a student who wants to write about lunch, about the cafeteria,” she said. “They really care about what they’re eating. And I love it.”