When LaToya Jordan first heard the news, she couldn’t believe it. Due to budget cuts, a number of popular school lunch options – chicken dumplings, bean-and-cheese burritos, cookies – would disappear from New York City public schools in February.
Jordan, a writer whose two children attend public school in Brooklyn, knew that both of her kids were fans of the burritos and her son loves the cookies, too. She immediately texted her mom-friends with the news.
The other parents had similar reactions. “Everybody was just [responding with] shock and anger emojis,” she said. Jordan’s son, who attends elementary school, has always loved school lunch; when he was in pre-kindergarten, his lunch from home would often come home soggy and uneaten because he preferred the school options.
The menu cuts were initially reported by the education publication Chalkbeat, which obtained an email saying chicken thighs and legs, salsa and guacamole, and certain breakfast options such as French toast sticks also would be eliminated from school lunch menus. Chicken fingers, fries and grab-and-go salads would be removed from some middle and high school cafeterias.
Jordan said her son’s school made no mention of the menu changes in its weekly newsletter beyond sharing a link to the education department’s page for lunch for pre-K through eighth grade. It’s unclear whether these specific changes will extend beyond this month; a spokesperson for the education department said items that do not appear on February menus may return later.
What is clear: these changes won’t be the last for the school system’s cafeterias. The city’s education department plans to trim $60m from its school food budget every fiscal year until 2028. That’s just a fraction of the $550m the agency must shed this year as part of citywide budget slashing ordered by the mayor, Eric Adams.
Rhys Powell leads Red Rabbit, a boutique school lunch kitchen that collaborates with chefs to create healthy, culturally appropriate school meals for New York City public charter schools and early childcare providers, among other clients. He said food-service suppliers usually can pick one of three options when cost-cutting: they can lower the quality of ingredients, the cost of labor or the number of options. “Our feeling was that this is an attempt [by the education department] to trim the budget without cutting quality or cutting labor,” he said.
Still, Jordan and other parents are wondering about the logic of what’s been cut. The bean-and-cheese burrito is a vegetarian option in a school system that has committed to providing different kinds of diets but sometimes struggled to do it well; in 2022, Adams, a vocal “mostly vegan”, instituted vegan Fridays at all public schools, and many families took their dissatisfaction with the meals – sometimes baked potato chips, sliced apples in baggies and premade burritos – to Twitter.
Jordan finds the burrito a questionable item to go on the chopping block because, compared with other lunch items, it seems relatively cheap to produce. “It’s bean and cheese,” she said. “Why are they so expensive?” (New York City has the largest school district in the nation, so even relatively inexpensive items can drive costs at that scale: the education department serves approximately 880,000 meals per day, according to a spokesperson.)
According to commenters on the r/nyc subreddit, the chicken dumplings were especially popular among students. “I work in the schools. The dumplings are popular and most kids eat them. Unfortunately most of the veggies go in the trash,” said one commenter. Another: “My 12 year old prefers DOE [Department of Education] dumplings to my dumplings and I’m [C]hinese … LOL.”
Powell found it hard to guess why the education department had settled on the specific changes listed in the emails obtained by Chalkbeat. “I couldn’t find a straightforward rationale for what was cut or what wasn’t cut,” he said, adding it was “tough to grasp what the thesis was there”.
Responding to a request for comment, the education department shared the statement it gave Chalkbeat last week.
“Our school food team has worked diligently to respond to budget reductions without sacrificing nutritional standards and with a continued focus on student choice,” said Jenna Lyle, a spokesperson for the agency. “Daily options, including a salad bar, continue to be available, and our young people continue to benefit from enhanced cafeterias, halal certified kitchens, plant-powered Fridays and other school food programs. As the mayor and chancellor have repeatedly said, we are in a fiscal crisis, and we are taking every action necessary to limit impact on schools.”
Meanwhile, one of the friends in Jordan’s text chain is the nutritionist and personal trainer Aynsley Kirshenbaum, whose two children also attend public school in Brooklyn. Though she knows how “tricky” it is to design school lunches with all the essential vitamins and minerals that kids need, her initial response was “utter anger”, she said: “I feel so frustrated they’re coming for school lunches.”
She worries that fewer choices may mean fewer kids eating healthier foods in the immediate term. Also, she’s concerned about longer-range consequences.
“Variety is the most important way we can get our full nutrient profile,” said Kirshenbaum. She added that, for young people, learning to pick what to eat is a lifelong skill that kids start honing at a young age.
“I think one of the things that New York City does really well is offering a variety of foods [in schools] so kids can practice choosing what they want to eat. It’s a skill – to look at a menu and learn how to feed yourself, to pick what’s going to be appetizing and that you’re going to enjoy,” she said. The February menu for her youngest child, who attends second grade, still has diverse options, such as grilled cheeses, turkey cheeseburgers, “fiesta quesadillas” and Caribbean-style beef patties. It also had a number of vegan and vegetarian options available – at least one a day – and a salad bar open all month.
In 2017, New York City announced it would offer free lunch in all its public schools. One out of five children in New York City experiences food insecurity, according to the food rescue organization City Harvest. “Not everybody can afford to go out to eat,” said Jordan, and while some middle and high school students are allowed to leave campus for lunch, elementary school students do not have that option. (Jordan has heard of some parents sending their children lunch via delivery apps like Uber Eats.)
For students who depend on school lunch and breakfast, having more options in the cafeteria can be the difference between eating and not eating.
“For a lot of students, [lunch] is a meal that their parents are counting on for them to get in school,” said Powell. “If students don’t have an option that they find enjoyable, or none of the options [are ones] they find attractive or tasty or uplifting, they may not eat that whole day. And that can be a real burden on families.”