Mayor Adams’ budget cuts raise concerns about NYC school food

Members of the New York City Council grilled education officials about funding for school meals at a budget hearing on Wednesday, raising questions about how Mayor Eric Adams’ administration will sate students’ growing appetites in cafeterias while seeking budget cuts.

The administration slashed $60 million for school food last winter as part of citywide cuts that Adams initially said were necessary due to the cost of supporting migrants, among other fiscal challenges. But students were dismayed when some of their favorite cafeteria staples, including French toast sticks, chicken nuggets and chicken dumplings, started disappearing from cafeteria menus. Adams reversed course amid public outcry and used federal stimulus money to restore some of those items.

Now, with stimulus funds expiring, councilmembers at an education committee hearing asked whether the city could commit to maintaining its food offerings. Officials are not only trying to save a broad range of education programs supported by federal dollars after the pandemic; they’re also scrambling to keep French toast sticks on the menu.

“We are very invested in making sure all these food options stay on the menu for students next year,” said Emma Vadehra, deputy chancellor of operations and finance for the city’s education department.

The overall education budget is set to shrink by more than $800 million this year due to the loss of federal stimulus funding. Adams has added $500 million in city funding to prop up programs that relied on the funds, including this year’s Summer Rising program, some preschool seats and social workers. But it is not clear how many of these initiatives and increased food costs will be covered in the long term.

Officials have said food costs are going up because more students are eating in cafeterias. “Our meal participation has been up,” Vadehra said, noting that enrollment in public schools ticked up this year, amid an influx of homeless and migrant students.

Many poor families depend on school meals. When schools were closed during the pandemic, food workers continued to deliver to-go meals to ensure families had enough to eat.

Vadehra said she thought more kids were eating in cafeterias because schools serve “delicious” food and some cafeterias have been overhauled recently as part of an Adams administration effort to make school food more appealing and healthier. In addition to Adams’ “Vegan Fridays,” the administration has remodeled some cafeterias, added salad bars and expanded access to halal meals. “We do think and hope it’s in part because of the investments we’ve been making in food,” said Vadehra.

One challenge she highlighted is a lag in federal funding that supports school meal programs. She said the city has also expanded meals for children who participate in Summer Rising, driving up costs.

Still, Vadehra sought to assure councilmembers that school cafeterias will continue to offer a range of options, including students’ favorites.

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