Student activists demand justice for lunch in Milwaukee schools

A new campaign for school canteen reform was launched Thursday in Milwaukee. Organizers from Youth Empowered in the Struggle (YES), a multicultural social justice organization, gathered outside the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) central office. Joined by allied organizations, the students are demanding fresh cooked food at school, accommodations for religious and cultural dietary needs, higher salaries for cafeteria staff and more.

“We are here to demand food justice in our schools,” Katherine Villanueva, a YES member and senior at the Milwaukee School of Languages, said at a press conference outside the school district office. “Quality, nutritious lunches are essential to our success as students.”

Katherine Villanueva, YES member and senior at the Milwaukee School of Languages. (Screenshot | Wisconsin Examiner)

YES collected feedback from more than 1,000 MPS students, Villanueva explained, and “identified that poor school lunch quality is the most pressing issue that needs to be addressed to improve our school environment.”

The district prepares the lunches in a central kitchen, then sends them to individual schools where they are reheated. The result is “undercooked food and substandard quality,” Villanueva said. “This is unacceptable.”

YES requires MPS to provide food cooked at school by food service staff, using local ingredients. The group is also pushing for bigger and heartier portions; a system for identifying and respecting personal, religious, cultural, medical or other needs; and more dining options in the dining room. The group is calling on members of the Milwaukee School Board to meet regularly with student activists to ensure demands are met.

“This campaign starts here, but won’t stop here,” Villanueva said. The group has already sought support from board members, as well as parents. “Working with parents, we will take our message to the community, and working with Voces De La Frontera and other allies, we will take our message to the streets.”

A member of YES holding up a petition.  (Photo | Courtesy of Youth Empowered in the Struggle and Voces de la Frontera)
A member of YES holding up a petition. (Photo | Courtesy of Youth Empowered in the Struggle and Voces de la Frontera)

A YES statement said the students timed Thursday’s event in anticipation of the Milwaukee School Board’s budget deliberations in April. In addition, Villanueva said student activists will raise the issue in May as part of the Day Without Latinx and Immigrants general strike. The day of action will also focus on ongoing immigration policy issues, including resistance to the obstruction of immigration reform, driver’s licenses for all, and tuition fairness across the country. for undocumented students.

Last September, images of food being served to MPS students surfaced online, including a grey-green burger patty with no bun and a side of carrots. One of the posts compared the meal to a photo allegedly of a lunch being served at the county jail.

In a Channel 4 WTMJ report on the controversy, MPS board chairman Bob Peterson said: “It’s essential for us to be able to convince children that this food is healthy and tasty.” Renee Slotten-Beauchamp, Operations Manager for the Department of Nutrition Services, sent the photos. “It was a hamburger patty and carrots. That’s all that was shown,” Slotten-Beauchamp said. “We had a bun, we had condiments and we had a fresh, I think it was a plum that day.”

Another student breakfast reported by TMJ4 included a packet of graham crackers and cranberry-sweetened raisins. There’s also the famous mock chicken thigh that was once served at MPS, a breaded pork chop loosely shaped like a chicken thigh.

Peterson told the Wisconsin Examiner that he is “pleased that YES members are voicing their concerns and that he looks forward to working with them at the school board to see what we can do to meet their needs.” In order to meet some of the demands, the district will need to overcome some logistical challenges, such as preparing food onsite at schools. “That’s what we used to do,” Peterson said, but the district wasn’t able to hire enough food service workers. “We have 150 vacancies for kitchen workers, and that is why we have had to start preparing food elsewhere, which is brought in by truck.”

The food at MPS “isn’t fresh,” said Doricela Herrera, a YES member and freshman at the Milwaukee School of Languages. “The meat seems undercooked most of the time, the cheese feels like plastic, and the buns on the burgers aren’t fresh. The vegetables are not fresh. The fruits are a bit fresh and taste good. But a variety of fruits and vegetables should be an option for every student.

A screenshot of a social media post sounding the alarm about MPS lunch food.  (Screenshot from Facebook)
A screenshot of a social media post comparing MPS lunch food on the left with more appealing prison food on the right. (Screenshot from Facebook)

Due to the quality of the food, Herrera brings her own lunch when she can. “Sometimes I don’t have food to bring, so I just eat snacks, which are unhealthy,” she said. “I shouldn’t have to bring my own food every day worrying about what I’m eating, how fresh it is and how healthy it is. I should be able to have fresh, stable food and have a healthy meal every day. This shouldn’t be a problem at all.

For families living in poverty, the issue is even more important, she added. “Some families may not have enough to support their children and depend on school meals, but their children need to eat what MPS serves,” Herrera said.

William Pickard, another YES member and first-year Language School student, said the meals needed more variety. For example, if students don’t like hot lunch, they are offered a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but some kids have nut allergies and some don’t like either option. Drinks are also an issue, with only white and chocolate milk being the only options. “Even when the food is edible, it’s not enough,” Pickard said. “We should have a full lunch, especially since some kids depend on it to survive.”

As a Muslim student, Mandeeq Adulahi, a YES member and junior at Riverside High School, sees many other Muslim students go hungry because lunches do not meet their religious dietary requirements. “It’s not far,” Adulahi said.

Zoe Smith, a YES member and sophomore at Reagan High School, said the school district should hire more cafeteria staff with better salaries. “I personally know teachers within MPS who work multiple jobs to stay afloat, or who leave MPS for better pay,” she said. “It can only be worse for the kitchen and janitorial staff who are arguably doing twice the work for half the pay.”

Mandeeq Adulahi, YES member and junior at Riverside High School.  (Screenshot | Wisconsin Examiner)
Mandeeq Adulahi, YES member and junior at Riverside High School. (Screenshot | Wisconsin Examiner)

Smith said improving food service could create better jobs. “Knowing that you’re being paid the bare minimum to cut someone else’s quota costs is not only degrading but dehumanizing,” she said. “Having fair wages not only promotes a sense of self-esteem, but also adequately pays these hard workers to do the work they have been doing all along.”

Peterson pointed to wages as a persistent issue. As of January 2021, MPS offers all of its employees a minimum wage of $15. “Obviously, recruiting enough kitchen helpers may not be enough,” Peterson said. “We struggle with that.”

Smith has matched adequate catering and food service employees who are paid appropriately with the student experience. “We can’t learn if we’re hungry,” Smith said. “We need to be fed, but our staff have to pay their bills and provide for their families. This request must be treated with fairness and without shortcuts, because no one deserves shortcuts taken at their expense.

Luz Chaparro Hernandez, a bilingual 3rd grade teacher at Allen Field Elementary, attended Milwaukee Public Schools as a child. Daughter of immigrants, she tasted lasagna for the first time in 5th grade. “It was delicious,” she recalls. She wants today’s students “to have the memories that I have of a nutritious, but also very, very good MPS lunch.”

There were more people in school district kitchens than preparing food, said Chaparro Hernandez, a member of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association and Voces de la Frontera. “I really want the district to really provide what it needs to ensure students have healthy lunches,” she said.

Ultimately, the school district budget will determine which YES member requests will be possible. “The biggest financial problem in terms of this issue and others is the fact that the Republican-controlled legislature has refused to do what’s right for the children,” Peterson said, criticizing Republican lawmakers for rejecting the proposals by Gov. Tony Evers, and backed by a business coalition earlier this year, to increase funding for public schools.

“Republicans spend 15 seconds swallowing any special session that has to deal with kids,” Peterson said. “So it’s clear that we are financially strained in terms of recruiting employees. We have jobs in almost every category: teachers, counsellors, construction helpers, paraprofessionals, care aides and kitchen helpers. And it would be great to be able to repay them all at a higher level. But, at this point, it’s going to be really touching given the inaction of the Wisconsin legislature.

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