New Haven’s school cafeterias will no longer use ovens to warm up breakfast foods that are still wrapped in plastic thanks to the advocacy of an incoming student Board of Education representative who spoke up after tasting plastic in his chocolate chip muffins.
At the June 13 meeting of the Board of Education’s new Food Services Task Force, New Haven Public Schools (NHPS) Food Services Director Gail Sharry announced that the new policy: Cooks will no longer heat up breakfast foods that are still wrapped in plastic by putting them in the oven. Instead, they’ll use the cafeteria’s steam wells to keep the foods at room temperature, thereby eliminating the risk of shrinking the plastic wrap.
What put the issue on the task force’s radar was the outspoken criticism of Nico Rivera, a rising junior at Metropolitan Business Academy who was recently elected to serve as the newest student representative on the Board of Ed.
Rivera is not even officially on the Board of Ed yet. He will be sworn in next week, when he will join Hillhouse High School rising senior Makayla Dawkins as one of two non-voting student members on the board.
But he has already made things happen.
The concern that Rivera raised was that cafeteria workers at Metropolitan Business Academy were heating up breakfast muffins in the oven while those muffins were still wrapped in plastic. Rivera said he saw the same thing happening in cafeterias at Wilbur Cross High School and at John S. Martinez K-8 magnet school when he visited those two schools for breakfast in early May.
“My campaign slogan was, ‘We stand together,’” Rivera said about his successful bid to become the next Board of Ed student rep. He said his commitment to visiting as many schools as he can and introducing himself to students, staff, and teachers led him to find that the muffins and plastic wrapper problem was not limited to his own school alone.
Sharry said the muffin wrappers are designed to tolerate a certain level of temperature increase so that the muffins can be heated up and served warm to students. She said the problem that Rivera pointed out was that there was an inconsistency throughout the district as to how certain cafeterias were heating up the muffins.
“If you heat them too much,” she told the Independent, “sometimes the wrapper will shrink.”
Rivera described the sensation of eating a muffin that has been overheated while still in its plastic wrapper as significantly more unpleasant that just dealing with a shrunken wrapper. He described the taste as slippery, hard, and faintly chemical.
“I need more assurance that the food is going to get better,” Rivera said about why he pushed the task force to look into this issue. “I need assurance that plastic is not going to keep melting on these muffins.”
The Board of Ed created the Food Services Task Force during its March 26 full board meeting. According to the task force’s chair, Board of Ed representative Joseph Rodriguez, the task force will review the school system’s policies and practices surrounding nutritional value, quantity, and quality of school lunches and breakfasts.
Rodriguez said the Board of Ed created the task force after receiving a number of complaints from students and parents about the quality of school cafeteria food.
“I want to examine areas where we have inconsistencies within the food services in the district,” Rodriguez told the Independent. “And I want to look at what’s working and how we can expand upon it.”
The committee is comprised of Rodriguez and fellow Board of Ed representative Dr. Tamiko Jackson-McArthur, Sharry, two NHPS parents, NHPS union cook leader Angie Monack, two Food Policy Council members, and two students, including Rivera. The committee meets the second Wednesday of every month at 6 p.m. on the second floor of 54 Meadow St.
Rodriguez said Rivera wasted no time in identifying his concerns with an inconsistency in school district breakfast preparations during the task force’s very first meeting on May 9.
“It was his first meeting,” Rodriguez said, “and, while he was attempting to get acquainted with folks, he did not shy away from voicing his concerns, which was welcomed. We want our young people to speak up.”
Rivera, who also serves as the secretary and treasurer of Metro’s student council, said he plays six sports (his favorite: baseball), two instruments (his favorite: percussion), and plans to apply to go to West Point for college. He said he regularly eats muffins for breakfast at school. He said his favorites are chocolate chip and banana.
He said he and his fellow students noticed as far back as December that some of the heated-up muffins still bore a taste of plastic.
“Mind you,” he said, “plastic causes cancer.”
Rodriguez said the committee was surprised to hear that school food was being heated up while still in its plastic wrapping.
“Everyone was taken aback,” he said about the task force’s response to Rivera’s comments.
During the task force’s June 13 meeting, Sharry told the group that breakfast items still wrapped in plastic will no longer be heated up in the oven.
“We’re telling the staff that they don’t need to hear them up” in the ovens, Sharry said. Instead, she said,cooks have been instructed to use their schools’ steam wells to keep the muffins and other plastic-wrapped breakfast items at room temperature.
“We’re trying to keep things warm without overwarming,” Sharry said.
Sharry said Rivera’s complaint was the first she had heard of the issue of muffins being overheated while still in their plastic wrappers in school cafeterias.
Rivera said he will continue to push the task force to look into the quality of school food, as he has heard complaints from a number of fellow students at Metro about eating cold hamburgers for lunch.
Rivera said as the newest Board of Ed rep he also wants to prioritize setting up chapters of Students Against Violence Everywhere, or SAFE, at different schools throughout the district. He said he wants to engage students in conversations about gun violence and bullying in schools to better identify how to reduce the risk that students face of experiencing physical and emotional violence when they go to school each day.