Worried that children were losing the war on obesity, New York City began to slim down its school lunch offerings several years ago, replacing fries with baked potato strips and introducing nonfat chocolate milk, whole grain pasta and salad bars, among other tweaks.
In the process, the city also cut calories. So much so, city officials now acknowledge, that it often served children fewer calories than required by the federal government.
The Bloomberg administration has often found itself stymied by the powers of Albany or Washington in its policy goals, including enacting congestion pricing, erecting a stadium on Manhattan’s West Side, taxing soda or barring the use of food stamps for sugar-sweetened beverages.
But in the case of the 860,000 school lunches served daily, it ignored a set of U.S. Department of Agriculture requirements written in 1994, without seeking permission. City health and education officials said their aim was not to lower calories, but to increase the nutritional value of the foods reaching students’ mouths.
But as it slowly began re-engineering those foods, there was a “secondary response,” said Cathy Nonas, a senior adviser in the city’s health department.
“It dropped the calories and at sometimes below what the USDA had as a minimum,” she said.
In replacing pork bacon strips with the turkey variety, for instance, officials cut 64 calories from one serving. And they saw no need to bulk the trays back up.
“Our mentality is to feed food to children, not nutrients to astronauts,” said Eric S. Goldstein, the chief executive for school support services for the New York City Education Department.
The city officials said new federal guidelines, which take effect this school year, prove they were right all along. The new rules reduce the minimum calorie counts by more than 200 calories in some grades and, for the first time, set calorie maximums as well.
Joel Berg, the executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, called the city’s move “reckless.”
“It is based on politics and personal whims, not nutrition science,” Berg said. “It is based on the city’s absurd belief that hunger no longer exists among children, despite federal data that proves that 1 in 4 New York City children live in food-insecure homes.”