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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Cupcakes or carcinogens: is DOE really interested in protecting student health?

Last week, the members of the Panel for Educational Policy unanimously rubberstamped hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts in about twenty minutes, including two contracts that will give exclusive right to sell snacks and beverages to two commercial companies, effectively banning student bake sales during the school day, under the guise of protecting their health. Patrick Sullivan, the Manhattan rep, was away on business and thus the lone voice of sanity on the PEP was sadly absent. Actually, the ban appears to be an attempt to maximize the revenue stream for these two companies, now able to market their commercial products through email ads to students and their families and test new products on students and staff.

Meanwhile, most NYC public schools still fail to provide the state minimum of hours of physical education, nearly one quarter of the schools in the Bronx have no gyms, and school lunches continue to offer many unhealthy items. An oped in the Daily News pointed out that the ban on student bake sales will seriously hamper their ability to raise money to support sports teams, further detracting from the opportunities to promote physical activity in our schools. You can also join a group on Facebook, organized by NYC students to protest the bake sale ban.
Here is an update from Steve Koss, addressing the DOE’s claim to be motivated by an interest in protecting student health:

When I was PTA President at Manhattan Center for Science and Math high school, we parents learned (from an October 30, 2007 FOX NEWS report) that our school building was sitting directly atop a toxic site, a buried, oozing tank of coal tar left over from the days when our site was home to a coal gassification plant (known as an MGP, or manufactured gas plant). This fact was known by school administration and the DOE who purchased the property in the late 1930s but was never conveyed to current or prospective parents.

At the same time that the School Construction Authority (SCA) was doing major, major renovation to our building, including digging a huge, deep trench on the grounds, we parents were learning that highly carcinogenic coal tars had been leaching under the school yard and FDR Drive and beneath the Harlem River riverbed. We further learned that no substantive indoor air quality testing had been done by the DOE or anyone else in the previous four years, and none for over five years during the winter heating season when windows are closed and the heating system creates negative pressure that draws vapors inward or upward into the building from below that would then be trapped inside and allowed to accumulate.

Our PTA Board immediately sent a letter addressed to Chancellor Klein and others expressing our concerns as well as our call for immediate, updated air quality and soil testing. What response did we receive from the DOE regarding our children's wellness? None -- just silence. No reassurances or expressions of concern, no offers to meet with persons who could address or allay our concerns, no offers of assistance in how to proceed or whom to contact, no offers to fund an independent air quality assessment, nothing. When we arranged, entirely on our own, to have Con Edison representatives (they were responsible for the site under a Voluntary Cleanup Agreement with NY State Department of Environmental Conservation) come to our next PTA meeting just two weeks later, some guy from SCA showed up and dozed through the entire meeting without saying a word. It wasn't until we got NY Lawyers for the Public Interest involved that anyone from DOE would even begin speaking with us -- I'm sure it was the threat of bad publicity or a lawsuit that prompted their response, not a concern over students' health being potentially endangered.

We're not talking about cupcakes here; we're talking about cancer-causing coal tars known to have been leaching from a tank buried inside and under our school basement. So when the DOE claims to be concerned about student wellness, I have to take those concerns with some rather large grains of salt.

I'd be curious to know how many parents and/or teachers have expressed such outrage over the horrendous health effects of cupcakes and brownies in their children's schools that the DOE found itself with no recourse but to take swift and decisive action. Apparently, in the DOE mindset, calories are more dangerous than carcinogens to children's health.

I see this bake sale prohibition policy as nothing more than another way for the DOE to take away parent and student initiative and weaken their ability to raise funds over which they can have some modicum of control. No matter how you slice it, this attempt to remove a classic, long-standing school tradition is another step in kneecapping parent/student influence and involvement, hiding behind the veneer of a supposed concern over student "wellness."

---Steve Koss

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