French Fries for Happier Children

The recent city budget cuts have unnecessarily affected public school meals.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

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By Christina Chen

Public school meals have notoriously inventive textures and flavors. In elementary school, my sister, who has always been a bit of a scientist, decided to determine just how rubbery Pizza Friday pizzas really were. A classmate nobly offered his slice as the test subject. He dropped it from his full third-grade height and, lo and behold, it bounced. 

Anyone who has experienced the New York City public school system will have a similar story to tell, but as much as I love to harp on the screws students have found swimming in spinach and the color of the water that the sorry excuses for hamburgers float in, I must admit that our universally free breakfasts and lunches are vital. Throughout elementary school, I did not qualify for free or reduced lunch, so my family had to pay for anything I ate from the cafeteria (though I was an “allergy kid,” so I mostly brought my own food). However, in 2017, the Department of Education (DOE) made all public school lunches free. By the time I was in middle school, I was allergy-free, and I began regularly eating free school-prepared lunches, which was incredibly helpful to my working parents. Researchers have found that this policy change was also beneficial for families who already qualified for free or reduced lunch because students felt “safer in school areas such as the cafeteria where bullying often occurs.” In the past, according to some estimates, “more than a third of NYC students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch did not participate in the program, to avoid the stigma and the bullying that often accompanies being identified as poor when they access subsidized school lunches.”

Despite avoiding the many questionable mystery meats, there are a few menu items that students rush to get before the kitchen runs out, such as chicken dumplings, roasted chicken thighs, and cookies. According to Chalkbeat, as a result of budget cuts, the city is quietly phasing out these offerings because they are apparently the most expensive dishes. Not all the menu cuts have been outlined, but the most beloved seem destined to go. Chalkbeat included chicken tenders, bean and cheese burritos, and grab-and-go salads (grab-and-go is a program that former Mayor Bill de Blasio set up for students to efficiently take free meals home from school during the pandemic) on its list. As one student commented on a viral Instagram post about this cut, “They take the tenders but not the meat from unknown providence.” These are just the lunch menu items. Breakfast has experienced fewer, but nonetheless tragic, losses as well. The most bereaved, from my assessment of peer Instagram stories, is the axe to french toast sticks. 

Stuyvesant has a school policy that allows students to exit the school during our lunch and free periods. While I can occasionally buy lunch outside, many of my peers cannot. Moreover, according to a report conducted six years ago, 46 percent of Stuyvesant students would qualify for free or reduced lunch. In that year, depending on household size, to qualify for at least reduced-fare lunch, the student’s family had to have an annual income below about $76,500. As it is, I see many of my friends skip lunch. The excuses are always the same: they don’t like the food offered, the cafeteria is too crowded, and “I have too much work to do.” At other schools, students skip meals due to inaccessible cafeterias. Cafeterias are often located inconveniently: perhaps they are in the basement, or the school has multiple buildings and the cafeteria is far away. Long lunch lines also discourage students from getting school food, but the foods that the city is eliminating from the menu are some of the few that students actually enjoy eating. Arguably, some of them are not the most nutritious—I’m thinking about french fries—but why are they deemed too pricey? This is potatoes, not steak! 

While menu ingredients tend to be inexpensive, the public school system serves almost 900,000 meals daily, and this can become costly. To ensure meals stay free for all students, the DOE is forced to look for the cheapest meal preparations that still meet nutritional needs and health standards. In other words, the quality of food suffers at the hands of expenses. While Mayor Adams’s budget cuts may not mean huge nutritional differences in the menu items themselves, because the offerings seem less palatable to students, those who choose to skip meals effectively do not receive adequate nutrition. 

I understand that the city budget is under stress with limited budgets and that any kind of crisis can force across-the-board cuts. However, the city’s budget for the DOE will be cut by a total $1 billion in the next two years. Considering the city’s pattern of overstating the necessity of budget costs—a strategy politicians often use to help create a budget surplus—this seems unnecessary. In just the 2023 fiscal year, the city collected about $8 billion more than anticipated. Why is Mayor Adams creating a surplus? Why do we need to cut $547 million from the school budget this year and $600 million next year? Why do we need to cut so much from the programs that are designed to assist both parents and students and eliminate seats for 3-K, prekindergarten programs, and summer academic enrichment programs? Saying that this is due to the migrant crisis seems to be a poor excuse. 

Even if the city is genuinely cash-strapped, we can still save french fries. Through the “Chefs in the Schools” initiative, Mayor Adams has partnered with the non-profit Wellness in the Schools to bring many nutritious, plant-based, and culturally diverse new menu items to public schools. According to their website, students who eat from this menu consume 40 percent more fruits and vegetables than other students. Although this is a helpful step forward, we can do even more with private-public partnerships. The DOE should invite corporations to help fund cafeterias and school programs, some of which include afterschool activities that parents are reliant on. 

My fixation on french fries may seem like small potatoes, but the whole point of making school meals free for all public school students was to remove the stigma of subsidized lunch and to provide both nutritious and attractive meals to those who couldn’t necessarily buy them otherwise. Reduced offerings threaten both of these goals. With a menu now more monotonous and unappealing than ever, many students may feel pressured to choose between being made fun of for unpleasant food and being unable to afford more exciting meals. While these menu changes may not necessarily be permanent, the food served will ultimately lead to excessive waste and unsatisfied students. Providing free meals goes beyond altruism. Every student needs access to nutritious, palatable meals to remain healthy and learn effectively.