02/15/2012 11:29 am ET Updated Apr 16, 2012

On NYC Subways, It's Kids' Breakfasts Vs. Rats

Yesterday an interesting story in the New York Times NY/Region section caught my eye.

The new chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Joseph J. Lhota, has come under fire for opposing a bill in Albany which would ban eating on New York subways. The goal of the legislation is to reduce the number of rats in the subway system, where riders currently report seeing the rodents on about one out of every ten platforms. (As a former New Yorker, I'd peg that number even higher -- eek!) When Lhota served as Rudolph Giuliani's deputy mayor, he was so active in combatting the city's rodent problem that Giuliani christened him the "rat czar," so why is he now opposed to an eating ban?

According the Times report:

Mr. Lhota said in an interview that he watched too many children eating breakfast items, like bagels and muffins, on the subways every morning to ban food.

"I do not support the bill," Mr. Lhota said. "It severely hurts and impacts minority communities. I don't want to deny the kid the only time that day he's going to get food."

I was surprised -- and pleased -- that Lhota is taking the nutritional needs of impoverished kids into account. When you think of the long commutes many kids have to make between boroughs to get to school, the subway is the logical place to eat breakfast. On the other hand, with cuts to transit workers' jobs, and therefore fewer people to clean subway cars, rats are a significant problem, too.

Maybe the real solution is to get more impoverished kids to take advantage of school breakfast.

Here in Houston ISD, we have a universal, in-class breakfast program in which free breakfast is provided to any student who wants it. The food is taken from a cart as the student enters the school, to be eaten at the child's desk during the first few minutes of class. While the program continues to generate a lot controversy in more affluent schools (lost class time, sanitation issues and concerns about the nutritional quality of the food), our Food Services department has said that in poorer schools the program has been enthusiastically welcomed by principals who are seeing increased attendance, reduced tardiness and fewer discipline problems. And while I, too, have some concerns about the food offered, the meals (which include milk and fruit) are far more nutritionally well-rounded than the "bagels and muffins" Lhota sees kids eating on the New York subways.

Coincidentally, my friends at the Food Research and Action Center recently issued a comprehensive report on school breakfast, finding that while participation in the national School Breakfast Program is increasing (9.8 million low-income children took advantage of it last year), less than half of the low-income kids eating school lunch also take advantage of breakfast at their school. And, perhaps not surprisingly based on the above Times report, New York City was ranked lowest among surveyed school districts in breakfast participation.

According to FRAC, both kids and school districts lose when breakfast participation is low:

Low participation means missed meals for hungry children and missed dollars for the state and city. If states could increase participation so they reach 60 children with breakfast for every 100 that also eat lunch, FRAC estimates that an additional 2.4 million low-income children would be added to the breakfast program and states would have received an additional $583 million in child nutrition funding.

So maybe it doesn't have to be a battle between kids' nutritional needs and subway rats?

More on the FRAC report here.