NYHealth Senior Program Officer Julia McCarthy submitted the following testimony to the New York City Council Committee on Education’s preliminary budget hearing on March 18, 2024. In her testimony, she emphasized the opportunity to improve students’ health and advance health equity through nutritious, culturally responsive, and delicious school meals:

The New York Health Foundation (NYHealth) is a private, independent foundation that seeks to improve the health of all New Yorkers, especially people of color and others who have been historically marginalized. Our Healthy Food, Healthy Lives program works to advance policies and programs that link New Yorkers with the food they need to thrive. Supporting nutritious, culturally responsive food in New York’s public institutions, including schools, is a core approach of our program.

NYHealth has a lengthy, successful history of improving both access to and the quality of school meals. Notably, NYHealth grantee Community Food Advocates (CFA) helped to secure universal school meals for the City’s 1.1 million public school children in 2017; just last year, CFA secured a State subsidy to help more schools provide free meals to all students. The Foundation has also supported efforts to increase State funding for farm-to-school programs that increase local products in school cafeterias.

NYHealth has partnered with multiple City agencies, including the New York City Department of Education’s (NYC DOE) Office of Food and Nutrition Services (OFNS), to procure better quality food— including products that fall under the Good Food Purchasing Program (GFPP). GFPP encourages public institutions to purchase food that supports nutrition, local economies, and environmental sustainability, among other values. The City has also partnered with Wellness in the Schools (WITS) to improve the appeal of school food and cafeteria environments, working to fulfill the promise of free lunch for all by transforming meals to be healthier, fresher, and more culturally relevant.

In the context of this impressive progress, we would like to highlight the critical importance of continued investment in fresh, culturally relevant meals in schools.

School Meals Reduce Hunger and Improve Dietary Health
Considerable evidence shows that school meals improve dietary quality for children who are at risk of hunger. School meals mitigate food insecurity among low-income students and are often the healthiest parts of students’ diets, across all income levels. Students who eat school meals consume more plant-forward food during mealtimes and have higher quality diets compared to students who don’t consume school meals.[1],[2] Nutritious school meals can also support students’ academic performance.[3] Even in the face of budget constraints, high-quality school meals are a necessity, not a luxury.

NYHealth’s own research on food insecurity and food insufficiency (a more severe and short-term version of food insecurity) further emphasizes the need in New York. Our forthcoming analysis shows that hunger spikes for households with children during school closures, like winter and summer breaks. Another NYHealth analysis conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic shows that school meals were the most commonly used food access point for New Yorkers in need.[4] Access to high-quality, culturally responsive, healthy school meals is also essential for advancing health equity. In New York City schools, 25% of students are Black and 42% are Hispanic or Latino, but school food often doesn’t meet those students’ needs and preferences. Our analysis shows that, whereas 81% of white families participating in school meals say they approve of the variety of food offered, only 58% of Hispanic families and 45% of Black families approve.[5] A forthcoming NYHealth data brief shows that, in 2023, food insufficiency rose for Black and Hispanic households across New York State; with growing need, healthy and appealing school meals are a lifeline for families struggling to put food on the table.

New York City’s Commitment to Healthy School Food Is Making a Difference
NYHealth applauds OFNS’s dedication to providing healthy school meals to the City’s students. OFNS recently committed to transforming school meals from frozen and pre-prepared items to freshly cooked meals. Partnering with WITS, it is redirecting the City’s school food menu and purchasing agreements toward fresh foods.

In 2022, NYHealth made a grant to support WITS in its partnership with OFNS to implement freshly cooked meals in New York City schools. This partnership launched the first NYC Chefs Council, comprising approximately 20 chefs and food activists to develop recipes that reflect the diversity of New York City’s students. OFNS and WITS developed and tested 100 plant-forward, culturally relevant meals that can be cooked from scratch ingredients from the NYC DOE’s procurement list. The new menu items are now available in all 1,200 New York City public school buildings. Additionally, the partnership led to scratch cooking training in 112 of the City’s more than 1,800 schools and has plans to expand training for more schools in the future. As a result, school cooks in these schools are now ready and able to prepare new healthy menu items using fresh ingredients. An earlier evaluation of the impact of the WITS program on New York City school lunches for elementary school students found that participating students consumed more fruits and vegetables.[6]

New York City Can Build on School Meal Successes
OFNS has worked relentlessly to implement new approaches to ensure students have the food necessary to maximize their health and succeed in school. Preserving these gains is critical. Proposed City budget contractions reflect precarious economic times, which means kids need nutritious school meals more than ever. The proposed $60 million cuts in OFNS’s budget may mean children don’t have continued access to the healthy meals they need to thrive.

The City Council has pledged to continue to improve the healthfulness and cultural responsiveness of meals in schools. Making good on that promise means continued support for OFNS to do just that. NYHealth appreciates the City’s shared understanding of school meals’ role in food security and dietary health, and its commitment to supporting these important programs. We look forward to continued partnership with the City and anti-hunger organizations to improve students’ health and advance health equity through nutritious, culturally responsive, and delicious school meals.


[1] Fox, M.K.; Gearan, E.; Cabili. C.; et al. “School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study, Final Report Volume 4: Student Participation, Satisfaction, Plate Waste, and Dietary Intakes,” U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service, Office of Policy Support; 2019. https://fns-prod.azureedge.us/sites/default/files/resource-files/SNMCS-Volume4.pdf, accessed March 2024.

[2] Kinderknecht, K.; Harris, C.; Jones-Smith, J. (2020). Association of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act with Dietary Quality Among Children in the US National School Lunch Program. Journal of the American Medical Association. 324(4), 359-368.

[3] Pucher, K.K.; Boot, N.M.W.M.; De Vries, N.K. (2002). School health promotion interventions targeting physical activity and nutrition can improve academic performance in primary- and middle school children. Health Education. 55(5), 372-391.

[4] New York Health Foundation. “NYHealth Survey of Food and Health,” August 2022.  https://nyhealthfoundation.org/resource/nyhealth-survey-of-food-and-health-2022/, accessed March 2024.

[5] New York Health Foundation. “NYHealth Survey of Food and Health,” August 2022.  https://nyhealthfoundation.org/resource/nyhealth-survey-of-food-and-health-2022/, accessed March 2024.

[6] Koch, P.A.; Wolf, R.L.; Trent, R.J.; Ang, I.Y.H.; Dallefeld, M.; Tipton, E.; Gray, H.L.; Guerra, L.; Di Noia, J. (2021). Wellness in the Schools: A Lunch Intervention Increases Fruit and Vegetable Consumption. Nutrients, 13(3085). https://doi.org/10.3390/nu13093085.

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