On June 15, 2022, the New York City Council Committee on Education held an oversight hearing on school food. NYHealth Senior Program Officer delivered the following testimony highlighting the need for universal access to high-quality school meals:

Chairperson Joseph and distinguished members of the Committee on Education:

My name is Julia McCarthy, and I am a Senior Program Officer with the New York Health Foundation (NYHealth) in the Healthy Food, Healthy Lives program. I am grateful for the opportunity to testify today on the topic of school food in New York City.

NYHealth is a private, independent foundation that works to improve the health of all New Yorkers. Our Healthy Food, Healthy Lives program seeks to advance policies and programs that connect New Yorkers with the food they need to thrive.[1] Supporting healthier, culturally responsive food in public institutions, like schools, is a core strategy of this program.

NYHealth Has a Long-Standing Commitment to Improve School Meals
NYHealth has a long, successful history working to improve both access to and quality of school meals. For example, in 2017, NYHealth’s support to Community Food Advocates helped to secure universal free school meals for New York City’s 1.1 million public school children. We have backed successful efforts to increase State funding for farm-fresh, local products in school meals. And currently, we are working with the New York City Mayor’s Office and State officials to enable municipal agencies, like the New York City Department of Education’s Office of Food and Nutrition Services (OFNS), to purchase better quality food—food that aligns with the Good Food Purchasing Program (GFPP). GFPP is a leading model for this change, guiding public institutions to make purchases that align with nutrition, local economies, environmental sustainability, valued workforce, and animal welfare. We are also supporting an advocacy campaign that would expand free school meals for all students statewide, building upon New York City’s success.

School Meals Reduce Hunger and Increase Dietary Health
School meals have been a signature issue for NYHealth because these meals reduce hunger, increase food security, and increase healthy eating. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed just how critical school meals are. Research from our Foundation shows that during the initial months of the pandemic, school meal programs were the most-used food access points for New Yorkers in need.[2]

Prior to the pandemic, one in ten New York City residents was food insecure, meaning they had limited or uncertain access to nutritionally adequate and safe foods.[3] Data that our Foundation published early in the pandemic shows that statewide, rates of food insecurity for Black and Hispanic New Yorkers and for families with children were even higher during the last two years, with up to a quarter of these families reporting food scarcity.[4] More recent data from a soon-to-be-released NYHealth poll conducted in late 2021 found that more than half of food-insecure New York City families with children reported that children in their household were hungry, but they couldn’t afford more food. Nearly 80% of these families reported that it was “sometimes” or “often” true that they couldn’t afford to feed their children a balanced meal. To make ends meet, 83% relied on low-cost foods to feed their children.

National research has shown that school meals can improve dietary quality for children at risk of hunger. School nutrition standards strengthened at the federal level have succeeded in reducing the risk of obesity for children in poverty; without these standards, obesity rates among this cohort would have been 47% higher.[5] New York City has set an even higher bar with nutritional standards that exceed the federal ones. Now, students who eat school meals every day have better diets than students who do not. They eat more fruits, vegetables, fiber, and whole grains, reducing the long-term health effects and health care costs of diet-related diseases.[6] Equally important, these students also see improvements in academic performance and behavior.[7]

OFNS Can Formalize Lessons Learned During COVID-19 School Closures
NYHealth applauds OFNS’s continued focus on the role that school meals play in maintaining students’ health and preventing disease, especially in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. School nutrition staff worked tirelessly to serve millions of meals that met New York City’s high nutrition standards during school closures, keeping many students and their families from going hungry.

Despite OFNS’s herculean efforts, looming federal policy changes will create barriers to school meal access. With federal waivers set to expire June 30, 2022, OFNS operations will revert to pre-pandemic operations, limiting the manner in which the agency can serve meals. We recommend that OFNS, in collaboration with the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy, develop a plan for future school closures. This plan should consider planned closures like winter and summer breaks, as well as emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic.

Research conducted by the Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy at Teachers College, Columbia University, funded by NYHealth, provides insight into how OFNS can continue to improve school meal distribution. In focus groups, more than 100 parents explained that while they were grateful for the meals provided, certain changes could help improve access to and participation in school meals during future school closures. Parents reported that they were more likely to continue to participate in school meals even when cafeterias closed if: 1) pick-up locations were close to their homes; 2) menu options were clearly communicated; 3) meals served were consistent with communicated menus; and 4) a variety of meals, including hot meals, were available.

To inform a plan for future school closures, parents recommended that OFNS:

  • Offer flexible pick-up times in welcoming locations. Many parents stopped participating in school meal programs because the time or location was inconvenient for daily pickup. Offering meals at convenient community locations all year round, as the summer meals programs already do, could help ensure students continue to access needed meals.
  • Strengthen communication about meal availability. Parents suggested that increasing signage at meal distribution sites, providing information in multiple languages on site, and communicating changes in real time via social or other media could help to strengthen awareness of and participation in meals when schools are closed.
  • Increase the variety of meals offered. Many parents want more meals that are hot, meet their religious or dietary needs (including allergies), and reflect the cultural variety of New York City.
  • Ensure consistent implementation. Parents noted that their experiences differed depending on the specific site, suggesting that certain schools had less appealing options and less variety over time.

New York City Council Can Support OFNS’s Ongoing Efforts
OFNS has worked tirelessly to make sure that students have the food they need to succeed in school. Additional support from the New York City Council could help to ensure that children are well-fed and ready to learn. Specifically, the City Council can: 

  • Provide additional City funding. Local funding could help mitigate the impact of higher food prices and help OFNS hire additional school food staff. Additional school food managers would enable OFNS to better serve school communities, implement appealing menus, provide professional development, partner with school leadership to create positive meal experiences, and increase participation in the school meals programs.
  • Advocate for school meal waivers to be made permanent at the federal level. Federal waivers made meal provision to students easier during the pandemic, enabling OFNS to serve additional sites across the City and serve in bulk. Early research from the Tisch Food Center and other national partners suggests these measures, if made permanent, could increase participation in school meals programs.
  • Support efforts, like the push for universal school meals, at the State level. Statewide universal free school meals build upon New York City’s work to expand school meal coverage and could provide economies of scale across the State, including to OFNS. In the absence of federal action, New York State can still provide healthy school meals for all students. New York City Councilmembers can voice their support for free school meals for all statewide.

NYHealth is grateful for the shared recognition of the important role school meals play in promoting food security and dietary health. We look forward to continuing to partner with the City and with anti-hunger organizations to strengthen school meal programs and support New York students’ health.

Watch the video of the hearing (Julia McCarthy’s testimony begins at 1:56:45).


[1] New York Health Foundation. Healthy Food, Healthy Lives. June 2022. https://nyhealthfoundation.org/what-we-fund/healthy-food-healthy-lives/.

[2] New York Health Foundation. Food scarcity in New York State during the COVID-19 pandemic. October 8, 2020. https://nyhealthfoundation.org/resource/food-scarcity-in-new-york-state-during-the-covid-19-pandemic/#introduction.

[3] U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Center. Definition of food security. April 2022. https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/food-security-in-the-u-s/definitions-of-food-security/.

[4] New York Health Foundation. Food scarcity in New York State during the COVID-19 pandemic. October 8, 2020. https://nyhealthfoundation.org/resource/food-scarcity-in-new-york-state-during-the-covid-19-pandemic/#introduction.

[5] Kenney et al. Impact of The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act on obesity trends. Health Affairs. 2020;39:7. https://www.healthaffairs.org/doi/full/10.1377/hlthaff.2020.00133.

[6] Au et al. Eating school meals daily is associated with healthier dietary intakes: The Healthy Communities Study. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2018; 118(8):1474-1481. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6064655/.

[7] Hecht et al. Impact of the Community Eligibility Provision of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act on student nutrition, behavior, and academic outcomes: 2011–2019. Am J Pub Health. 2020; 9: 1405-1410. https://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/full/10.2105/AJPH.2020.305743.

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