By Kevin Zimmerman
When New York City children shuffle into the cafeteria on Sept. 9 most probably won’t notice any changes at that first back-to-school lunch until they roll their trays up to the cash register.
For kids who pay for the mid-day meal, the price jumps up a quarter. But those children who qualify for reduced-cost meals will see their tabs fall from 25 cents to nothing.
“Two things are happening,” said Eric Goldstein, CEO of School Support Services. “We used to have paid, reduced and free lunches. Now we’ll just have paid and free. And for kids who pay, the cost is going from $1.50 to $1.75.”
But when it comes to dining options, returning students already know what’s for lunch.
Other districts around the country are struggling to ban trans fats and increase healthy choices, which, said Goldstein, means they are just trying to catch up with New York City.
“We are way ahead of the federal standards,” said Goldstein. “Really, the only change we have had to do is increase the portion size of fruits and vegetables.”
For years, children at all grade levels have had access to a salad bar, which provides dozens of vegetable options and low- or non-fat dressings. There is no Buffalo chicken or crumbled bleu cheese on these bars. There’s even a mini-me sized serving area for the elementary school students.
“It is a 30-inch [tall] salad bar that is literally created for them because they are so little,” said Marge Feinberg, spokeswoman for the Department of Education.
The Department of Education (DOE) serves 600,000 lunches per day across the five boroughs and another quarter of a million breakfasts, said Goldstein. Breakfast items include yogurt, cereals, and whole wheat bagels, and they are offered at no charge to every student.
“New York City is the largest school food operation in the country,” said Goldstein. “So how do you bring meaningful, substantial change? By feeding more students for free and with improved quality.”
For most of his seven years running the department, Goldstein has overseen an operation that only serves whole grain pasta, organic yogurt and non-genetically modified tofu. And, unlike in other districts, the city does not run a centralized kitchen, which then ships meals out to its 1,500 schools. It’s also been years since anyone heated up a batch of oil in a school kitchen, said Feinberg.
“We no longer fry anything,” said Feinberg. “We still offer French fries and sweet potato fries, but they are all roasted and the children can’t tell the difference.”
But the food service business is not a one-size-fits-all operation. Younger children — even in NYC — normally do not possess adventurous palates.
High school students might see a corn confetti salad, which is chopped corn, onions and peppers, offered as a side dish. But in the elementary school, vegetables tend to keep to themselves.
“With the little kids, you probably would just have cut-up carrots,” said Goldstein. “Elementary kids want things separate.”
Many of the younger students also probably skip the newer menu items, which are rolled out throughout the year, and stick to the traditional peanut butter and jelly sandwich options.
Currently the system is testing falafel, pasta with a pesto sauce and an Italian chicken sandwich, which is a hit with Goldstein.
“I love it,” he said. “If it’s well-received it can be on the menu in late fall or early winter.”
What is never scheduled to appear in the serving line, however, are old-school desserts, like Texas sheet cake with chocolate icing or a make-your-own sundae bar. Fruit remains the lone post-meal option.
And, while vending machines remain in the city’s high schools, they sell no sodas, not even diet, and offer snacks with 200 calories or less. Students do not have access to the machines when lunch is being served.
“It’s really just to encourage kids to eat lunch,” said Goldstein. “And at $1.75, it is still the best deal in town.”