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Report: Cooking Outside the Box: How a Scratch Cooking Pilot in the Bronx is Reshaping Meals In New York City Schools

December 3, 2019 --- New York City, which serves 900,000 school meals a day, can successfully prepare and serve scratch cooked meals to students, according Tisch Food Center’s newest report. This is a major shift away from processed foods currently on the menu. The potential positive impacts of scratch cooking on students’ diets, health, academic achievement, and sense of community are enormous.

With New York City parents, students, politicians, and advocates clamoring for better school food, the report—Cooking Outside the Box: How a Scratch Cooking Pilot in the Bronx is Reshaping Meals In New York City Schools—shows that the largest school district in the country can turn back the clock and serve fresh, appealing scratch cooked meals to students. For the purpose of this report, scratch cooked food service means: food service that prioritizes the preparation of meals or snacks on a daily basis at or near the site of consumption with ingredients in their most basic form.

The Cooking Outside the Box report is particularly timely given the New York City Council’s recent bill calling on the Department of Education (DOE) to give them a plan and timeline for fully transitioning to scratch cooked food service.

Key findings from Cooking Outside the Box include:

  • Moving from many processed foods to entirely scratch cooked meals required complex systems change given the massive size and scale of the DOE’s Office of Food and Nutrition Services.
  • The model for scratch cooking evolved during the pilot, from an initial focus on two kitchens serving five schools fully scratch cooked meals, to introducing some scratch cooked recipes citywide.
  • While this study did not focus on economic outcomes, initial findings show that food and labor costs have the potential to move towards cost neutrality as more school kitchens transition to scratch cooked food service.

In order for all students to have scratch cooked meals every day, New York City will have to make serious investments in kitchen infrastructure, staff training and advancement, coordination of internal and external stakeholders, and generating student enthusiasm for scratch cooked meals in partnership with the entire school community.

View the reports:


school lunch tray school meals scratch cooked

See what the press is saying:

"Preparing fresh, marinated chicken from scratch may not seem like a big deal at home. Now add in hundreds of schoolchildren, federal nutrition guidelines, and a kitchen that needs updating, and it becomes a gargantuan task. Still with the right investments in equipment, supplies, and training, it’s doable, even for a school system that feeds about 940,000 free meals a day." - Reema Amin, for Chalkbeat (Want all NYC school meals cooked from scratch? It’s possible, a report finds)


"Perhaps the most encouraging finding in the report came from the pilot schools’ longtime kitchen staff. “We saw an incredible amount of pride in what they had accomplished and in the food they were serving the kids,” said Trent. “Given the increase in work and training up to skill, they could have put in requests to change schools, but they all stayed and returned.”"- Andrea Strong, for Heated, a publication from Medium x Mark Bittman (NYC Public Schools Can Serve Real Food, But Will They?)


See what people are saying:

“Healthy food is vitally important to ensure student success in school. That's why the City Council introduced legislation to ensure that every school child has access to scratch-cooked menu items. Cooking Outside the Box is a timely and incredibly valuable report on the current pilot that will help guide our collective efforts to scale-up and make scratch-cooked meals accessible to all New York City school children,” said New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson.


“Providing healthy, nutritious food options helps ensure that our students are ready to excel in and out of the classroom,” said NYC Council Member Mark Treyger, Chair of the Committee on Education. “Moving to scratch cooked meals in our city’s schools is a positive step forward to increase food equity and offer healthier food options. I look forward to the further expansion of the scratch cooking program to all schools with appropriate facilities.”


“New York City has the largest school system in the country and provides most of its students with re-heated, mass produced meals. Because fresh cooked meals can significantly impact students’ diets and overall health, academic achievement, and sense of community, I’ve introduced legislation to help New York City move in this direction. I thank the Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy for their invaluable research about a scratch cooking pilot in local schools, helping us to further understand the benefits of this approach and what is needed to transform how we feed our young people,” said Council Member Helen Rosenthal (Manhattan, District 6).


“Healthy eating is at the core of fighting many of New York City’s most dangerous health crises that have high rates of diagnoses in children, including diabetes and obesity,” said City Council Health Committee Chair Mark Levine.  “It is essential that the over 900,000 meals New York City Public Schools serve students every day are made using as many non-processed ingredients that are nutritious and appealing to children. The scratch cooking pilot program in the Bronx showed that it is possible to use whole ingredients at the scale needed to provide a large number of students with tasty, healthy meals.”


“For this report, we were generously given rare behind the scenes access into the complex operations of the Office of Food and Nutrition Services serving New York City public school students. This allowed us to tell the many stories—from multiple points of view—of what it takes to radically shift how we feed our city’s children now and in the years to come,” said Raynika Trent, Project Director and report lead author, Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy, Program in Nutrition, Teachers College Columbia University. 


“The Tisch Food Center evaluation team spent an enormous amount of time in the two Bronx schools carefully documenting the roll-out of Cooking Outside the Box through interviews, kitchen observations, photographs, over 200 documents (e.g., metric reports on food, labor, and supply costs), and student and staff surveys about their feelings towards the new menu. We are excited to now share these findings about what change happened and how it happened with all those that can play a role in helping to scale this initiative further,” said Dr. Randi Wolf, Director, Program in Nutrition, Teachers College, Columbia University.


"Brigaid's mission is to to collaborate with school foodservice teams to work towards providing the highest quality food possible to that school district’s students. For that reason, we are excited to be working with the NYC Department of Education's OFNS to explore the possibilities of reintroducing more scratch made meals throughout the largest school district in the country. The Tisch Food Center's report illustrates the challenges involved in this process, but more importantly outlines a clear path forward for making these kind of meals a reality for all New York City students,” said Dan Giusti, Founder and CEO, Brigaid.


 “The move away from relying on pre-prepared processed foods to cooking meals from scratch and having trained culinary professionals in school kitchens is a promising approach in terms of students health and school performance as well as cost,” said Irfan Hasan, Program Director for Healthy Lives at The New York Community Trust “and the Cooking Outside the Box report re-affirms the importance of this approach, which is important to The Trust in its efforts to advance the health of all New Yorkers”. He adds “ We are pleased to have made a grant to support the research needed to issue this report and congratulate the Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy, in the Program in Nutrition, Teachers College Columbia University for its work and its findings.”


“To be healthy and learn, New York City’s school children should have food that is both highly nutritious and delicious,” said David Sandman, Ph.D., President and CEO of the New York State Health Foundation (NYSHealth). “This report offers New York City a timely blueprint to help transform the way school meals are prepared and served.”


Cooking Outside the Box is a timely report that brings to light a vision of possibility. With a 15-year partnership with the NYC OFNS, Wellness in the Schools understands what it will take to bring this pilot to scale - training of school cooks that combines culinary skills with an understanding of why cooking from scratch is important for children’s health and well-being,” said Nancy Easton, Co-Founder and Executive Director, Wellness in the Schools. “We have seen success of such a training approach first hand.”


Cooking Outside the Box by the Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy, provides analysis and insights that shine a light on the tremendous potential, and the challenges of implementing and operationalizing the Scratch Cooking Pilot in the Bronx. Community Food Advocates is grateful to have this research to inform and guide the Department of Education as it expands this exciting pilot,” said Liz Accles, Executive Director, Community Food Advocates. 


“The work done by the Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education, and Policy to develop a model for scratch cooking in New York City Public Schools is so important to both improve the quality of students’ diets and to guide school districts throughout the nation to expand scratch cooking," said Dr. Juliana Cohen, Assistant Professor of Nutrition at Merrimack College and the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.

Published Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019


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