The Lunch Wars
Why Improving School Food is So Controversial and How Some Schools in Westchester Have Gotten Past the Politics


By Doris Freedman



  • Bill Clinton Scores a Victory for School Nutrition

  • Building a Four Star Lunch Box
  • When Greenburgh 7 Central School District removed french fries from the lunch line, parents called to accuse food service director Anne Gonch of breaking the law. “These parents thought their children had a right to eat fries,” says Gonch.

    As her experience illustrates, despite alarming childhood obesity statistics, increased incidences of diabetes and heart disease in children as well as mounting evidence linking better nutrition to better academic performance, improving the quality of food served in schools is far from a no-brainer.


    New Federal Legislation

    Schools across the country are scrutinizing their cafeteria offerings in response to the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act passed by Congress in 2004. The Act required all school districts receiving federal school lunch funding to put a “Wellness Policy” in place by the beginning of the 2006-07 academic year. The policy must include nutrition guidelines for all foods and beverages sold in schools during the day and goals for nutrition education, physical activity and other student wellness programs. To draft the policy, districts were required to convene a committee made up of parents, students, administrators, board members, food service representatives and the public.

    But here’s the loophole: A school district’s policy need not bring anything new to the table. If a Wellness Committee is satisfied with the status quo, the district’s Wellness Policy can arguably set forth its current menu and fitness programs.


    Disagreements Abound

    As a result of the federal act’s flexibility, wellness policies and nutritional offerings in Westchester schools vary widely. Retiring North Salem superintendent Peter Litchka was reluctant to make food changes too quickly, so North Salem’s current Wellness Policy only states that the district “will ensure that guidelines will be set,” rather than setting forth specific standards.

    “Maybe we’ll get to the point where we ban an ingredient, but I don’t think we’re at the point where we have enough knowledge and information to make those decisions now. People need time to talk about changes,” says Litchka. “For every person who wants to ban something, there might be someone who says it’s not that bad. I bet there’s someone out there who could say, ‘look at the nutritional value of candy.’”

    Litchka’s point came to life at the June board of education meeting where he formally presented the Wellness Policy. Board of Education trustee Lisa Douglas expressed her personal view that soda should not be eliminated from vending machines in the middle school/high school. “Once you get into sports age, between seventh and 12th grade, kids need a soda to keep up their energy for after-school sports,” she argues.

    Angry parents disagreed and called for swift improvements to school food and beverage offerings. In response to Litchka’s suggestion that an item like potato chips be phased out over three years, Susan Moyer, who has 10- and 13-year-old sons in the school system, shot back, “Three years is an eternity in the life of a 10-year-old!” Her husband, Kregg Moyer, shares her frustration. “This whole idea of flexibility blows my mind. If we’re offering potato chips next to fruits and vegetables, what do you think the kids are going to pick?”

    Dissatisfied constituents led New York State Assemblywoman Sandy Galef to sponsor a bill that would dictate stricter nutritional standards for products sold in vending machines and lunch line items sold separately from entrée meals. Galef’s bill, and its companion in the state senate, was stalled in the Education Committee of both houses this spring after being opposed by the New York State School Boards Association (NYSSBA). Supporters of the legislation allege school boards are unwilling to give up subsidies they receive from companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi for selling their products and therefore placing concerns about money ahead of students’ well-being.

    Dave Ernst, Director of Research and Communications of the NYSSBA, opposes Galef’s legislation because it forces a uniform standard on all schools rather than letting each school district identify its problem areas and determine how best to deal with them individually. Moreover, Ernst believes cafeteria menus that offer only healthy options will drive students to bring lunch from home or leave campus to buy lunch elsewhere, endangering the economic viability of those lunch programs.


    Secrets to Westchester Success Stories

    Despite all the controversy over what at first glance seems like a straightforward issue, many districts in Westchester have found ways to bring healthier food into their schools. Here are the stories of some strategies that worked.

    1. Build consensus before making changes.
    Dobbs Ferry Union Free School District was ahead of the game when it implemented its Wellness Policy over a year ago in response to parents’ concerns about the healthfulness of cafeteria food. The policy calls for eliminating trans fats, increasing whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables, decreasing refined sugar and selling nutritious food in vending machines.

    Lisa Doty, assistant principal of the district’s Springhurst Elementary School and chairperson of Dobbs Ferry’s Nutrition Advisory Committee, attributes the district’s success in making significant menu changes to student participation. In the middle and high schools, students used taste tests to choose which healthy snacks they could buy in vending machines. “These free tastings helped open their eyes that healthy food can indeed be delicious,” says Doty.

    While trans fats were removed from the menu immediately after the policy was implemented, other changes took place or continue to take place over time, like replacing fruit drinks with 100 percent fruit juice and flavored water, whole milk with low-fat and skim, and white-flour bread, bagels and pasta with whole wheat.

    Gradual change is important, says Doty, because it spreads out any financial impact and allows food service personnel time to make adjustments. It also leaves time for education. “We’re not going to force on people changes they don’t want. Parents and teachers will accept that we’re serving whole wheat bread if they understand why.”

    2. Outshine the competition.
    When Mamaroneck Union Free School District began plans for a new high school cafeteria, officials knew competition would be stiff: the high school is directly across the street from a pizza place, deli and hot dog shop. “We’re an open campus, so it’s important that we provide students with healthy choices that taste good, or they’ll go elsewhere and get the bad choices,” explains Bari Suman, Mamaroneck’s director of health, physical education, athletics and health services.

    So the new “café,” as it is called, was styled after a Cosi restaurant, featuring smaller, round tables, soft, contemporary lighting and many different food choices. Smoothies are made with fresh fruit and all-natural fruit purees and a wood-stone oven bakes pizzas made with low-fat cheese and fresh vegetables. The deli counter offers spinach, whole wheat and herb garlic wraps and whole wheat bread is the standard for sandwiches. The café sells 80 freshly-packed salads a day.

    While healthy food comes at a price, it needn’t cost a lot more. For example, a dozen whole wheat buns cost only seven cents more than white, according to Debra Donleavy, Mamaroneck’s food service director and an employee of Whitsons Culinary Group’s school food service division. To keep up revenue, the café sends promotional emails to staff and faculty, who can open credit accounts and call in orders so they don’t wait on line. School officials say the number of students buying lunch at school is up since the new café opened, which they attribute to its central location, attractive food choices, inviting setting and lower prices than those at off-campus eateries.

    3. Cash in.
    Many districts have found outside sources of funding to bring healthy food into their schools. Some schools received $1,000 “base grants” from New York State for completing the Centers for Disease Control’s School Health Index, a tool to measure strengths and weaknesses in eight wellness-related areas. “Mini-grants” of up to $6,000 were awarded to secondary schools with the most promising proposals for sustainable, nutrition-related programs.

    Briarcliff Manor Middle School/High School received one of these mini-grants, which it will use to team up with local farmers this fall, winter and spring to create tastings from freshly harvested produce. Long-term, Briarcliff hopes to work with its food service company to incorporate locally-grown fruits and vegetables into cafeteria menus.

    Thanks to a $500 grant from Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, students at Katonah Elementary School (KES) sample radishes, cabbage, broccoli and leafy greens grown in their own school garden. Additional resources for the garden came from a Home Depot donation, organic coffee sale fundraisers and registries at local garden and hardware stores, where community members purchased items needed for the project. Karen Jason, co-chair of the PTO’s nutrition committee at KES, says the next step is to offer locally-grown produce on the lunch line. Through her efforts, KES students already enjoy New York State apples and pears in the cafeteria, and Jason is working to add more choices from area farms in the future.

    4. It takes a village (and a county and nonprofits …).

    • Fit Kids

    The county health department’s Fit Kids program has helped schools across the county develop activities and policies that promote healthy eating and exercise. Toby Miller, a nutritionist who heads the program, says, “the long-term purpose of Fit Kids is to instill healthy behaviors in the kids that they’ll grow up with and incorporate into a healthy lifestyle.” She has worked with school districts to draft Wellness Policies, conduct Student Health Index evaluations, write grant proposals and participate in the county’s No Junk Food Week. Her office maintains a large lending library of pedometers that schools can borrow for fitness events, as well as displays that deliver nutritional messages in a visual way. “Students understand why soda is so unhealthy when they see a bottle filled with 17 teaspoons of sugar, the same amount found in a 20-ounce bottle of soda,” Miller says. Fit Kids has been so successful that Westchester recently received a $110,000 grant to expand the program into surrounding counties.

    • Westchester Coalition for Better School Food

    a">Nonprofits have also stepped up to the plate to help schools deliver the healthy eating message. Susan Rubin, a dentist-turned-holistic-health-counselor, formed her own nonprofit organization when she couldn’t change the food in her children’s school using more traditional channels. Now Rubin’s Westchester Coalition for Better School Food is a regional force. In March, the Coalition organized the School Food and Fitness for Life conference, attended by officials from 31 of 40 school districts in Westchester. Co-sponsored by the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, American Cancer Society, American Diabetes Association, American Heart Association and Westchester County Department of Health, the conference was lauded by former President Bill Clinton as “a true investment in the future of our nation.” On Sept. 9, the Coalition will host a conference for parents and PTAs about ways to improve food at school and at home. (See Resources for contact information.)

    • Junior League – Kids in the Kitchen

    a">The Junior League, an international women’s organization dedicated to community service, partnered with schools last April to organize Kids in the Kitchen, a day of food and fitness fun. Pequenakonck Elementary School in North Salem (PQ) was a pilot school for the program in northern Westchester. During lunch periods, Chef Jerome of Northern Westchester Hospital Center treated students to cooking demonstrations and tastings. After school, students and parents made healthy snacks like hummus, sugar-free lemonade and fruit kabobs, practiced yoga and breathing exercises and built a food pyramid using their favorite foods. The Junior League hopes to bring Kids in the Kitchen to more schools in Westchester next year, using the PQ event as a model.

    With so many parents, school officials and community organizations sharing responsibility, nutritious food is bound to become the norm in Westchester schools sooner or later. “It needs to start with each one of us in our homes,” reminds Rubin. “We can’t expect the schools to do it all – they can’t. But schools can’t afford not to invest in better food, even if it is more expensive. If test scores go up and absenteeism goes down, the money is a wash. And that’s not even looking at the whole cost of bad food, which is the health of the kids.”



    Alliance for a Healthier Generation – To enroll in the Healthy Schools Program, visit or call 888-KID-HLTH (888-543-4584).

    Centers for Disease Control
    – Lists available federal grants, searchable by subject.

    Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences – Kids Growing Food program provides grants and support services for schools interested in growing school gardens.

    Westchester Coalition for Better School Food – To join other parents, educators and health professionals working to improve school food or to register for their Sept. 9 conference for parents and PTAs, contact 864-1293.

    Westchester County Department of Health – To enroll in Fit Kids or obtain further information, contact the Bureau of Community Nutrition Services. 813-5231.


    Doris Freedman is a freelance writer living in North Salem.