How much microwave pizza can a kid eat?
No kettles, no pans, no stoves, no smells – nothing is cooking. It’s hard even to tell that you are in a kitchen and school lunch is being made. A school lunch helper has lifted a cardboard box of frozen pizza onto the table. Today students at the Bronx Academy of Letters at 339 Morris Ave. are having pizza with turkey topping – or would, if they would eat it.
Last spring, for the seventh year in a row, the Bronx was named the least healthy county in the U.S. The annual ranking by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation showed almost a third of the Bronx’s roughly 1.4 million inhabitants are obese.
“Look around; no one looks healthy,” says Ali Annunziato – Miss A, as the students call her – pointing to the students hanging around the schoolyard. She teaches health at the Bronx Academy of Letters. “The kids are not getting healthy food at home or at school. How would they get used to eating it?” The lack of fresh food at school lunches makes her angry. “The cafeteria is disgraceful,” she said. “It’s disgusting.”
The school lunch children get depends on the school they’re in. It’s determined by a combination of federal aid, private money, priorities in the school’s budget, equipment in the school’s kitchen and the kitchen staff resources. In this school, the equipment is limited only to heat products.
Nashalie Robledo, 16, says she would rather go hungry than eat the school lunch. “I haven’t eaten one since middle school,” Robledo says, explaining: “I stopped eating it after my classmate found frozen pieces in his pizza. Our food is heated with microwaves, and it’s not appetizing or filling. There are no colors, no vegetables, no creativity. It’s mostly pizza every day – burgers, too.”
This year Robledo started high school, so she is allowed to leave school during lunch break. “I’ll go to Angie’s to get pizza or Popeyes,” she says. “It’s still better.”
In the cafeteria, a school lunch helper is stacking the boxes in the freezer. He wants to stay anonymous because he’s afraid of getting in trouble for talking to the media, but he defends the food.
“Everything is clean here; the inspectors come constantly,” he says. “And it’s great food. Burgers are 100 percent beef; we use low-fat milk and low-sugar products. It’s frozen? Most of the food in the supermarkets is also frozen – this is America! Maybe in the Caribbean you can find fresh fruits or chicken, but this is how it is with mass food production.”
Still, he says, he shares the worry over kids’ eating habits.
“They give me attitude when I put veggies on their tray,” he says. “They have to take either greens or a fruit but don’t touch it. They don’t drink milk; they don’t even drink water. They are so used to soda. Parenting is everything, the home environment.”
Claudia Castaneda, community nutritionist at the Bronx Health Center, says that because many of these children come from low-income families—according to the NYC Community Health Profiles 2015, 43 percent of Mott Haven and Melrose residents live below the federal poverty level—parents can’t afford health foods or simply don’t have time to prepare it.
“I’m guilty of that!” says Lisa Monge, mother of two, in the school hallway. “After a long day at work, sometimes I’ll say to the girls that ‘let’s just go and get pizza.’ But not that often anymore.” Monge’s strategy is to cook big meals a couple of times each week and then have leftovers rather than eating out. “Even if it’s not fresh when you take it from the fridge or freezer, it’s still home-cooked, from fresh ingredients. It’s still better than getting fries from McDonald’s.”
Simbley Calrki, grandmother of nine, thinks the responsibility of eating habits is on both schools and homes. Calrki cooks for the grandchildren: chicken and rice with broccoli, spaghetti, tacos, banana bread. “Kids don’t have problems with eating vegetables like string beans and broccoli at home. But it’s the school food they don’t like” says Clarki.
“Cheese burgers, pizza and nuggets, they all just taste weird,” says her grandson Kaleh, 10, twisting his face.
Castaneda says part of the issue with the school food is also the lack of variety. “I always told the kids to look for colors in their plate. But if it’s just fries and a burger, everything is yellow. The schools should provide colors and make the food look more exciting,” she says.
She encourages schools to increase the amount of vegetables in dishes, like adding broccoli to pasta or topping pizza with vegetables instead of pepperoni.
Castaneda worries about what she sees daily. “There is a lot of obesity and pre-diabetes with the kids – really young children with high sugar levels,” she says. “These are diseases that normally only adults have. It’s really sad.”
Miss A tries. She has built a garden behind the school, and in her health classes children learn how to grow their own food and to taste vegetables. Half of her class of 30 children had never even tasted a cucumber when they started. None of them had picked a fruit or vegetable before.
The garden is opposite a Western Beef Supermarket. “Our veggies are better,” says Emmanuel Terron, 12, looking proudly over the boxes where Brussel sprouts, potatoes, kale, garlic, beets and herbs are growing.
Terron says he eats salad at home. And growing vegetables has made an impact. “My sister likes salad, too, but she wants to buy it from Burger King,” he says. “I said no, we have to use fresh ingredients. And she ate it! I even hid some mushrooms there.”
How did Terron learn to eat mushrooms? “I had mushroom pizza once and I liked it.”
Miss A and her class collects this week’s harvest in a small wagon and move it in front of the school, where they sell their products every Wednesday to raise money to keep the garden going.
Kids start to rush out of school’s main door. It’s time for lunch break. You can tell: the ice cream trucks have just parked in front of the school.