Kids Are Boycotting School Lunches They Say Are Worse Than Prison Food
Some Chicago teens have had it with rotten fruit and stale pizza prepared by food service provider Aramark.
(Photo: Jomara Salinas)
DEC 1, 2015
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.
Rotten pears, burned pizza, and fat-filled chicken patties and burgers. Those are just some of the unappetizing, often unhealthy lunch items being served to teens at Roosevelt High School on Chicago’s Northwest Side—and some of the students have had enough. Starting Wednesday, they plan to boycott the gross cafeteria food, and they have launched a petition demanding that lunch offerings be improved.
The effort, called “The School Lunch Project: Culinary Denial,” was created in November by civics students at the school. They hope to educate the public about the problem with the food they are being served and mobilize the 1,400 students at Roosevelt to stand up for better nutrition.
“I think it’s especially important for young people in Chicago—where we see so much corruption, cronyism, and nepotism—that they learn how to make change within large organizations,” Tim Meegan, a veteran social studies teacher at Roosevelt who supports the student-led effort, told WBEZ on Monday. “This is just one of many diverse tactics that we are trying to teach young people so they are fully equipped to participate as citizens in a democratic society.
Burned pizza; rotten pear. (Photos: Alaa Farge; Celeste Hernandez)
The school serves a student body that’s 94 percent minority—predominantly Latino and black—and mostly low-income. A full 95 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch—which, given the school-to-prison pipeline, makes one observation the students made about the offerings from food service provider Aramark particularly problematic.
“Today, our lunch at Roosevelt is no better than the ones in Cook County prison. In fact Aramark is the food service provider for both institutions,” wrote the student activists on the project’s website. Chicago Public Schools partnered with Philadelphia-based Aramark two years ago when the district, like several others across the nation, shifted to offering free meals to all students at most campuses.
“Prisons only care about one thing when it comes down to meals—that it has enough nutrients for what the human body needs, it doesn’t matter if it tastes or smells bad. One online review of the prison food shows that prisoners get better food from Aramark than we do. For example they have corn muffins, steamed carrots, green beans, also mac and cheese.”
The teens mainly want appetizing food that meets the disputed healthier standards—less fat and sodium and more healthy fruits and vegetables—set by the National School Lunch Program. In other words, fruits and vegetables that aren’t rotten and main course offerings other than pizza or burgers.
“We want bigger portions, more nutritious food, and [food] partly handmade from scratch,” one student activist, Shirley Hernandez, a junior at Roosevelt, told WBEZ. “It’s a human right to have decent food.”
The students wrote on the project’s website that Roosevelt cafeteria used to make healthier meals from scratch, ones that “served the community at large and turned a profit for the school.” The teens also “learned that Aramark is a company with a laundry list of corruption and scandals a mile long. They may not know how to keep us happy, but they certainly keep their investors happy.” (The company's stock has more than doubled the returns of the stock-market benchmark.)
Aramak told the radio station that it had not received complaints directly from Roosevelt students or staff, but it is “looking into it with CPS and the principal.” In a statement, CPS wrote that “the health and wellness of our students is among our top priorities, and we will look into the students’ questions about their meals.”
A boycott of the cafeteria meals will keep thousands of dollars out of Aramark—and CPS’—pockets. The two split $3.15 per meal in federal monies, so if the kids don’t eat, neither entity gets the government funding.
What will stop the cafeteria boycott? On their petition at MoveOn.org the students wrote that they “urge our principal, the Chicago Board of Education, and Aramark to act now to allow us to open the lunchroom kiosk, have vending machines, off campus lunch, food delivery, and increased options, portion sizes, and quality in our school lunch.”
Meanwhile, on Wednesday the teens behind the project plan to educate their peers about it during their advisory period.