Two weeks ago, Monica Eng reported that a high school civics class at Roosevelt High School in Chicago was protesting the district’s sub par school food by launching a website, ”The School Lunch Project: Culinary Denial,”as well as a petition seeking to improve the food.
Last week, Eng updated the story, reporting that the Roosevelt students staged an impressive boycott in which over 900 kids spurned school lunch, instead eating granola, fruit and yogurt provided by outside supporters of their efforts. In the process, the students garnered a fair share of other media attention, including reports in the Chicago Tribune, local television, the Daily Kos and elsewhere.
In general, I’m always a little skeptical of students’ complaints about school food (because, come on, that’s what kids do) and I’ve written before on this blog about how cell phone photos can make even good (or at least acceptable) food look downright horrible.
But Eng’s original story did mention that participation in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) lunch program has signficantly declined in the last two years – despite the fact that the district now offers free lunch for all students, with no paperwork required, a change which arguably ought to have boosted participation. Those same two years also mark the debut of a new food service management company in the district, Aramark, which took over from Chartwells. (Houston ISD, my own district, also uses Aramark.)
Intrigued by these facts, I decided to dig in a little further, emailing with both CPS representatives as well as three of the Roosevelt High civics students, Ana Mendoza, Andrae Zollicoffer, and Itzel Perez. I also spent quite a bit of time looking at The School Lunch Project website to better understand what motivated the protest and what the students hope to achieve.
The Roosevelt students’ complaints and proposals are, to my mind, a little muddled. On the one hand, the students complain that the food they’re served (just two options, they say, burgers and pizza) isn’t healthy enough and contains too many chemicals. Yet at the same time they want CPS to “offer a dessert such as cheese cake, cookies, yogurt, flan, or tres leche cake,” and they also bemoan the loss of the “juice, cookies, chips, slushies, and other things they used to buy” from a fundraising kiosk that apparently was a fixture in their cafeteria. (The kiosk likely disappeared due to the recent implementation of the federal Smart Snacks in School rules, but clearly the students believe CPS is responsible.)
The students also probably didn’t look at school meal regulations before they issued some of their proposals. For example, they say they’re tired of milk and chocolate milk and want CPS to add bottled water and juice as school lunch beverages. But districts aren’t allowed to offer bottled water or juice as the beverage in the reimbursable school meal, though they must make free water available via water fountains or coolers, and they can sell bottled water and juice on an a la carte basis. Similarly, federal nutrition standards, including calorie caps, necessarily put limits on the many desserts the kids say they’d like to see.
And while the Roosevelt students complain that “the only raw meat cooked at school is chicken drumsticks,” many advocates view whole meat chicken like drumsticks to be a big improvement over highly processed nuggets and patties. (The drumsticks in question may also be antibiotic-free.) Moreover, some of the food depicted on their website doesn’t look too bad, such as this chef’s salad:
And when I questioned the Roosevelt students about being served “only burgers and pizza” day after day, they told me that in fact salad is offered every day as an alternate item.
All of that said, though, the kids clearly have some legitimate complaints about their school food. Here’s one photo allegedly showing blue plastic bits in a CPS burger:
Here’s another, showing a frozen, mushy fruit cup:
Here’s a photo of sad lunch allegedly served at a CPS elementary school, which someone sent in to The School Lunch Project website:
Moreover, the Roosevelt students firmly believe that students in more affluent high schools, such as Lincoln Park High School, are getting better food (though my review of CPS menus shows the same items being offered) and they feel there’s been a serious drop-off in quality since Aramark took over from Chartwells. They’ve also since posted on their website a more comprehensive list of the types of foods they’d like to see added to their lunch menu, some of which may be impracticable but many of which seem quite reasonable.
The students deliberately chose not to contact Aramark or CPS before launching their protest. As they told me, “We figured we’d use the “element of surprise’ because if we talked before we took action they would use meetings to drag it out and they would outlast us. We dropped the topic on them without letting anyone in on our plan.”
When I asked CPS for comment, I was told by a spokesperson that “CPS has a school lunch program that provides healthy, nutritious lunches at no cost to students throughout the district. Not only does CPS exceed federal nutrition guidelines, we also enjoy working with student and parent groups to test our meals and develop menus. CPS is happy to work with the students of Roosevelt to hear their concerns and address their needs, and look forward to meeting with them this week.” The spokesperson also outlined the many ways in which the district seeks student feedback on menus, including test-testing with a district-wide student advocacy group.
That aforementioned meeting between the Roosevelt protestors and CPS has since taken place and, at least from the students’ perspective, it didn’t go very well. According to their write-up of the meeting, they felt talked down to and disrespected, and they claim that CPS tried to place much of the blame for sub par food on the “lunch ladies” in the Roosevelt cafeteria. (I did not speak to CPS after this meeting and therefore can’t offer the district’s perspective on it here.)
Students are, of course, the ultimate consumers of school food, yet they often have the least representation in debates over setting federal meal standards or in district-wide decisions about school food menus. So, if nothing else, I applaud the Roosevelt students (and their civics teacher, Tim Meegan) for giving voice to their concerns and successfully getting the district’s attention within a matter of days.
The students are now trying to take their protest district-wide, asking students from around Chicago to boycott school lunch tomorrow, December 17th.
When I asked the Roosevelt students if there was anything else they’d like to share with my readers, they said, “We want the best for us and other schools, and we are trying to achieve our goal of getting better lunches . . . because no one deserves to get bad lunch when they try so hard to do good in school.”
[Many thanks to WBEZ reporter Monica Eng for putting me in touch with Mr. Meegan’s class, and to Roosevelt students Ana Mendoza, Andrae Zollicoffer, and Itzel Perez for taking the time to answer my questions.]
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