The Fight for a Better School Lunch


The Times recently reported that Wellness in the Schools, a nonprofit program which was working to serve healthier lunches in 30 New York City public schools would be discontinued because it did not meet new federal nutrition standards. But yesterday, after City Council speaker Christine Quinn encouraged the Education Department to retain the program, the news came that WITS will continue this fall.

Last year, I went to a WITS fall orientation and met the cooks, many of them graduates from local culinary schools. Throughout the school year they visited their assigned elementary schools several times a week to make sure WITS’ fresh dishes were being cooked and served. It was not glamorous work, one cook told me, but imagine if 1,000 schools across the city cooked meals from scratch!

The program also includes workshops like the “pizza salad” class I went to at PS 87, where chef Bill Telepan taught a bunch of first graders how to mix up tomatoes with pita bread, basil, and cheese in a bowl of dressing. The idea isn’t to turn the classroom into little chefs, but to familiarize the children with different kinds of salad so they’ll be more likely to choose it at their cafeteria, where WITS worked to set up salad bars.

Later, I had lunch at a cafeteria and was impressed to see many of the kids around me reaching for raw carrots and hummus, and a simple black beans salad made with chopped tomatoes and herbs. Of course, they were still looking forward to “Pizza Friday.”

The new Whole Foods Market that opened last week on 57th Street is also planning some school lunch improvements. Over the next six months, the company will begin rolling out 57 permanent salad bars in public schools. The ones in elementary schools will be set up at a shorter height and include greens, raw vegetables, and a variety of “low-fat” dressings. Salad bars in high schools will have more vegetable variety and more complex salad offerings, like whole wheat pasta salad and bean salad.

The list of schools to receive the salad bars is still pending.