Testimony to NYC Council Committee on Education: Scratch-Cooking Implementation Bill

by Charles Platkin, PhD, JD, MPH
Scratch Cooking

Testimony of Charles Platkin, Ph.D., J.D., M.P.H., Distinguished Lecturer, Hunter College, CUNY; Executive Director, Hunter College New York City Food Policy Center

Title of hearing: Int. No. 1676

September 18 , 2019

Written Testimony

Thank you Council Member Rosenthal and the members of the Committee on Education for the opportunity to submit written testimony regarding the Scratch-Cooking Implementation Bill.

I am providing this testimony on behalf of the Hunter College New York City Food Policy Center, of which I am the executive director. The Center was created in 2012 to develop collaborative, innovative and evidence-based solutions to prevent diet-related diseases, promote healthy eating and reduce food insecurity in New York City and other urban centers. We work with policy makers, community organizations, advocates and the public to create healthier, more sustainable food environments.

The health of New York City children today is being compromised by increasing health risks of obesity and other diet-related diseases. Currently, nearly 40 percent of NYC public school students in grades K-8 are overweight or obese.1

The NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene says the rate of obesity among Black students is approximately 65 percent greater than among White students. Among Latino students, the rate is 97 percent greater than among white students.2 Individuals, especially children, who are overweight are at increased risk for diabetes, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, arthritis, and cancer.3 Additionally, according to research reported in Obesity Reviews, obese children and adolescents were approximately “five times more likely to be obese in adulthood than those who were not obese.”4

But it is not only health costs that matter; diet-related diseases and poor nutrition may also adversely affect academic performance of our youth. Numerous studies have demonstrated the impacts between nutrition and students’ thinking skills, behavior, and health.5,6,7

The Office of Food & Nutrition Services in the New York City Department of Education is faced with the arduous and noble task of feeding up to 1.1 million children, which accounts for nearly 60 percent of the food school children eat each day. While school food has been an integral part of the public school experience for decades, the quality and care of its ingredients and preparation has gone through its own evolution.

In 1946, the National School Lunch Act was signed into law.8 Originally envisioned as an agricultural subsidy program that expanded access to nutritious meals for undernourished children, the program underwent major budget cuts in the 1980s during the Reagan administration.9 With a $1.5 billion budget cut, there was an overall shift in the nutritional quality of meals served —  a time when ketchup was considered a vegetable in schools.10,11

While school food is often criticized, meals served in New York City public schools deserve acknowledgment for major milestones such as Breakfast in the Classroom, Meatless Mondays, New York Thursdays and the possibility of eliminating chocolate milk in school cafeterias. New York City school’s now have a list of prohibited ingredients that includes sweeteners such as high fructose corn syrup, preservatives such as ammonium hydroxide, and flavor-enhancers such as MSG.

Additionally, New York City has long been a leader in promoting healthy eating among its residents and has launched many initiatives aimed at improving the health of our young people in particular. These include Eat Well, Play Hard, which provides nutrition and physical activity classes in child-care centers; Farm to Preschool, which brings fresh, local produce and nutrition education to city preschools; and the Summer Meals Program, which provides free breakfast and lunch to children ages 18 and under at public schools, parks, pools and libraries. Passing the Scratch-Cooking Implementation Bill will be another important step toward ensuring that children have healthy food options while eating outside their home.

The introduction and implementation of scratch cooking at all New York City schools would show a significant commitment and investment in our children. Adopting scratch cooking in schools means students will be served whole, nutrient-rich foods. The benefits of doing this include not only instilling healthy eating habits for healthier minds and bodies but also supporting local procurement, reducing packaging/waste and providing learning opportunities to staff and students.12,13

With almost one million children eating school lunch every day, scratch cooking is an important step we can take to ensure that today’s youth learn the benefits of eating real, healthy food made from whole ingredients. Scratch cooking will improve food-related outcomes in NYC Schools.

In fact, a two-year pilot study in Boston called the Chef Initiative explored the impact cafeterias can have in providing healthy meals. Professionally trained chefs prepared wholesome, nutritious meals from scratch in school cafeterias for students over a two year period. Students at Chef Initiative schools who were exposed to scratch cooking consumed more whole-grains and vegetables than before the program was implemented.14

Additional studies have yielded similar results, demonstrating that increasing the proportion of scratch cooked foods can lead to an increase in fruit, vegetable and whole-grain consumption, a decrease in the consumption of fat, saturated fat, sodium and calories, and contribute to healthier school food environments.15

A study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics aimed to determine whether school lunch entrées made in a district from raw United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Foods, the largest source of ingredients for school meals, can be healthier and less expensive to prepare than purchasing processed foods.16 The study found that scratch-cooking had significantly lower food costs, higher labor costs, and did not have different total costs compared with entrées that were processed. The findings suggest that scratch-cooking can be a cost-effective way to expand the variety of healthy school lunches prepared with USDA Foods.

Furthermore, according to a report from the Pew Charitable Trusts, school food directors report steady or increased participation in school lunch programs and stable or rising revenue after implementing more scratch cooking.17

Food Insecurity and Scratch Cooking

Eighteen percent of NYC children suffer from hunger and/or food insecurity.18 Hunger and poor nutrition adversely impact academic performance,17,19,20 behavior and attention,21 timeliness, attendance,27,29 and student retention.22

A way to improve food security among New York City school students is to increase consumption and destigmatize participation in consuming school foods. Using scratch cooking in school cafeterias is a significant method of improving consumption amongst those who need it most. Research has shown that students also want improvements and healthier school foods such as scratch cooking.23

While acknowledging the benefits of scratch-cooking, it is equally important to recognize the barriers and challenges. Such challenges include the cost implications of enacting a scratch-cooking policy, ensuring food safety standards of onsite cooking procedures (i.e handling raw meat vs. frozen beef patties), building the skills and knowledge of kitchen staff, and upgrading kitchen facilities to ensure they have the capacity and equipment to implement scratch cooking practices.24 However, the proposed bill will carefully evaluate the existing challenges unique to New York City and make appropriate recommendations for overcoming them, just as other cities have done.

Schools have been identified as offering a critical opportunity to improve healthy eating behaviors. For the last ten years there has been a federal interest in providing freshly prepared school meals. In 2010, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act required cafeterias to offer more fruit, vegetables, and whole grains in every school meal.25 However, as the current administration rolls back important nutrition standards for grains, flavored milks and sodium that were part of the Act, New York City must continue to lead despite changes at the federal level.26

Additional Facts and Data

  • The New York City Department of Education is the largest public school system in the United States, serving about 1.1 million students in more than 1,700 schools. The Office of Food & Nutrition Services serves approximately 940,000 meals to these students each school day. All meals are provided at no charge to the students or their parents. When a government organization is responsible for feeding almost a million children a day, there is a responsibility to ensure that those meals prepare our youth for success.27
  • Good nutrition options can have a positive impact on NYC children, helping them to maintain a healthy weight and BMI, increasing their fruit and vegetable consumption, encouraging them to develop a positive attitude toward those foods, and improving academic performance.28
  • Research has documented that habits formed during the early years last a lifetime — making the need to improve students’ nutrition and help them establish healthy eating behaviors all the more crucial.29,30,31
  • Academic performance increases in children who eat a healthy foodies. Lack of adequate consumption of specific foods, such as fruits, vegetables, or dairy products, is associated with lower grades among students.32

For these reasons, the Hunter College New York City Food Policy Center fully supports efforts to improve the quality of the food served to our children in schools across New York City as outlined in the Scratch-Cooking Implementation Bill.

We at the Hunter College New York City Food Policy Center stand ready to help in any way we can to improve the health of children across New York City. The Center and the City University of New York recognize that childhood obesity is a serious and concerning issue throughout New York City that can have damaging effects on the city down the road, particularly an increased strain on our healthcare system and rising healthcare costs. However, we also recognize that scratch cooking and more nutritious school food can be part of the solution. We are eager to work towards making healthier options available for children.


Title: A Local Law in relation to requiring the department of education to report on implementing scratch-cooked school food service
Sponsors: Helen K. RosenthalBen KallosDiana Ayala Barry S. GrodenchikVanessa L. GibsonBrad S. Lander
Council Member Sponsors: 6
Summary: This bill would require the New York City Department of Education to report to the council information regarding the Department’s efforts to implement scratch-cooked food service in schools and related nutrition and health programming.
Indexes: Report Required, Sunset Date Applies
Attachments: 1. Summary of Int. No. 1676, 2. Int. No. 1676, 3. August 14, 2019 – Stated Meeting Agenda with Links to Files, 4. Hearing Transcript – Stated Meeting 8-14-19, 5. Committee Report 9/18/19, 6. Report – Growing Food Equity in New York City


[1] Health Department Announces Pediatric Obesity Outreach Campaign Targeting Pediatricians and Family Practitioners. NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. 2019. https://www1.nyc.gov/site/doh/about/press/pr2019/pediatric-obesity-outreach-campaign.page

[2] Health Department Announces Pediatric Obesity Outreach Campaign Targeting Pediatricians and Family Practitioners. NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. 2019. https://www1.nyc.gov/site/doh/about/press/pr2019/pediatric-obesity-outreach-campaign.page

[3] The Health Effects of Overweight and Obesity. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2015. https://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/effects/index.html

[4] Simmonds M, Llewellyn A, Owen CG, Woolacott N. (2016). Predicting adult obesity from childhood obesity: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Obesity Reviews. (2):95-107

[5] Nutrition and Students’ Academic Performance. Wilder Research, 2014. https://www.wilder.org/sites/default/files/imports/Cargill_lit_review_1-14.pdf

[6] Taras, Howard. Nutrition and School Performance at School, 2009. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/j.1746-1561.2005.tb06674.x

[7] Florence, Michelle D. et al. Diet Quality and Academic Performance, 2019. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1746-1561.2008.00288.x

[8] National School Lunch Act. United States Department of Agriculture, 2018. https://www.fns.usda.gov/nslp/history_5

[9] Rude, Emelyn. An Abbreviated History of School Lunch in America, TIME, 2016. https://time.com/4496771/school-lunch-history/

[10] Nestle, Marion. Is Ketchup a Vegetable Again?, 2011 https://www.foodpolitics.com/2011/11/ketchup-is-a-vegetable-again/

[11] Thornton, Mary and Martin Schram. U.S. Holds The Ketchup In Schools, Washington Post, 1981. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1981/09/26/us-holds-the-ketchup-in-schools/9ffd029a-17f5-4e8c-ab91-1348a44773ee /

[12] Foods in America’s Schools. Chef Ann Foundation, 2016. https://www.chefannfoundation.org/assets/uploads/documents/CAF_School_Food_Infographic_Oct2016.pdf

[13] Schober, D., Carpenter, L., Currie, V., Yarock, A.L. (2016). Evaluation of the LiveWell@School Food Initiative Shows Increases in Scratch Cooking and Improvement in Nutritional Content. J Sch Health.86(8):604-11

[14] Cohen & Smit. (2012). Long-Term Impact of a Chef on School Lunch Consumption: Findings from a 2-Year Pilot Study in Boston Middle Schools. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 112(6). 927-933

[15] Behrens, T., Liebert, M. Peterson, H, Smith, H, Sutliffe, J, Day, A., Mack, J. (2018). Changes in School Food Preparation Methods Result in Healthier Cafeteria Lunches in Elementary Schools. Am J Prev Med. 54(5 Suppl 2):S139-S144

[16] Woodward-Lopez, Gail et al. Is Scratch-Cooking a Cost-Effective Way to Prepare Healthy School Meals with US Department of Agriculture Foods? Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Volume 114, Issue 9, 1349. https://jandonline.org/article/S2212-2672(14)00498-5/fulltext

[17] Serving Healthy School Meals. The Pew Charitable Trust, 2013. https://schoolnutrition.org/uploadedFiles/Resources_and_Research/Research/KITSEquipmentReport.pdf

[18] Hunger Free America. 2018. The Uneaten Big Apple: Hunger’s High Cost in New York City. https://www.hungerfreeamerica.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/NYC%20and%20NYS%20Hunger%20Report%202018_0.pdf. Accessed Sept. 20, 2019.

[19] Murphy JM, Wehler CA, Pagano ME, Little M, Kleinman RE & Jellinek MS (1998) Relationship between hunger and psychosocial functioning in low-income American children. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry 37, 163–170.

[20] Cady C.L. Food insecurity as a student issue. J. Coll. Character. 2014;15:265–272. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1515/jcc-2014-0031 Accessed Feb. 6, 2019

[21] Alaimo K, Olson CM & Frongillo EA Jr (2001) Food insufficiency and American school-aged children’s cognitive, academic, and psychosocial development. Pediatrics 108, 44–53.

[22] Payne-Sturges, D.C., et al. (2018) Student Hunger on Campus: Food Insecurity Among College Students and Implications for Academic Institutions. American Journal of Health Promotion 2018, Vol. 32(2) 349-354. DOI: 10.1177/0890117117719620

[23] Asada, Y., Hughes, A., Read, M., Schwartz, M. & Chriqui, J. 2017. High School Students’ Recommendations to Improve School Food Environments: Insights From a Critical Stakeholder Group. J Sch Health. Nov;87(11):842-849. doi: 10.1111/josh.12562.

[24] Serving Healthy School Meals in California: The tools needed to do the job. Pew Charitable Trust, 2014. https://www.pewtrusts.org/~/media/Assets/2014/11/KITSCaliforniaReport111214Final.pdf

[25] Arnold, Alexa. Six Things You Need to Know About School Food,  2018. https://foodcorps.org/6-things-you-need-to-know-about-school-food/

[26] Responding to the Needs of Local Schools, USDA Publishes School Meals Final Rule. United States Department of Agriculture, 2018. https://www.usda.gov/media/press-releases/2018/12/06/responding-needs-local-schools-usda-publishes-school-meals-final

[27] Office of Food and Nutrition Services. NYC Department of Education. https://www.schoolfoodnyc.org/aboutus/aboutus.htm

[28] Piekarz-Porter E, Schermbeck RM, Leider J, Young SK, Chriqui JF. Working on Wellness: How Aligned are District Wellness Policies with the Soon-To-Be Implemented Federal Wellness Policy Requirements? Chicago, IL: National Wellness Policy Study, Institute for Health Research and Policy, University of Illinois at Chicago, 2017, www.go.uic.edu/NWPSproducts.

[29] Abraham S, Noriega Brooke R, Shin JY. College students eating habits and knowledge of nutritional requirements. J Nutr Hum Health. 2018;2(1):13-17

[30] Troxel, N. Hastings, P. (2014). Poverty during Childhood and Adolescence May Predict Long-term Health. Center for Poverty Research. UC Davis. https://poverty.ucdavis.edu/sites/main/files/file-attachments/policy_brief_troxel-hastings_poverty_stress.pdf Accessed Geb. 5, 2019.

[31] Conger RD, Conger KJ, Martin MJ. Socioeconomic Status, Family Processes, and Individual Development. J Marriage Fam. 2010;72(3):685–704. doi: 10.1111/j.1741-3737.2010.00725.x.

[32] Health and Academic Achievement, Center for Disease Control. https://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/health_and_academics/pdf/health-academic-achievement.pdf

Related Articles

Subscribe To Weekly NYC Food Policy Watch Newsletter
Subscribe to our weekly email newsletter today to receive updates on the latest news, reports and event information
No Thanks
Thanks for signing up. You must confirm your email address before we can send you. Please check your email and follow the instructions.
We respect your privacy. Your information is safe and will never be shared.
Don't miss out. Subscribe today.