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Chicago High Schoolers Launch Website Against School Food

Two years ago, something pretty revolutionary happened in Chicago Public Schools.

The district made every meal in nearly every CPS lunchroom free for every student.

The idea was to end the mountains of sometimes fraudulent lunch paperwork, move lunch lines faster, reduce stigma on low-income kids and make it easier for everyone to get a school meal.

Given the new federally subsidized program, officials expected to see a big bump in the number of kids who take the meals.

But that’s not at all what happened.

Instead, that number dropped by about a million lunches in the first year and more than 800,000 in the second, according to CPS records (The drop did accompany enrollment declines in the district but outpaced them).

So what happened? Why would so many kids reject food that had become completely free for everyone?

“Because that food is disgusting,” said one North Side high schooler who recently talked to me in a lunchroom while munching Flamin’ Hot Cheetos with a Powerade. She didn’t want to share her name.

Junior Shirley Hernandez will share her name. She’s one of the honors civics students (taught by Roosevelt High School’s Tim Meegan) who this month launched the School Lunch Project website and a petition to change food in the district. Students complain of brown lettuce, soggy gray broccoli, plastic found in burgers and frozen, mealy fruit.

They say it’s unhealthy, unappetizing and overly processed.

“We want bigger portions, more nutritious food and [food] partly handmade from scratch,” Hernandez said. “It’s a human right to have decent food, not the lowest quality of food.”

If CPS and its caterer Aramark (which also arrived two years ago) can’t produce better food, the Roosevelt students say they want permission to eat off campus or even go home for lunch as other Chicago students have done in the past or currently do.

As it stands today, the students are presented with a menu of mostly processed fast food dominated by pizza, burgers and chicken patties. And Roosevelt civics student Duyen Ho believes this could create problems for their long-term health.

“The fact that we eat fast food every day is going to affect us in the long term,” said Ho. “It’s going to affect us a lot.”

Recent changes to the National School Lunch Program have required that the meals deliver less fat and sodium and more fiber than previous lunches. But CPS records show that the three most frequently served entrees — pizza, cheeseburgers and chicken patties — are still full of preservatives, fillers, stabilizers and additives.

The School Lunch Project website details these ingredients, shares links to research materials (including some written by this reporter) and offers a gallery of sometimes graphic lunch photos. So far the site has gained attention and comments from parents, students, teachers and a even a supportive CPS principal.  

The CPS central office sent a statement to WBEZ saying “the health and wellness of our students is among our top priorities, and we will look into the students’ questions about their meals.”

Aramark, for its part, says it became aware of the website through social media and is “looking into it with CPS and the principal.”  But the company said it had not heard about the specific complaints listed on the site from staff or students directly.

Still, this week the Roosevelt students plan to take their protest beyond the online world. They’re planning a schoolwide lesson on school food Wednesday followed by lunch boycotts among upperclassman Thursday and Friday. Next Monday, they say, they plan to take the lunch boycott schoolwide, and even to partnering schools.

CPS and Aramark get a $3.15 federal payment (that they share) for each school lunch a student takes, so thousands of students brown-bagging it for even a day could cost them several thousand dollars.

“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,” said Tim Meegan, who’s taught at the Albany Park school for 14 years. “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.”

Meegan’s not your average mild-mannered instructor.This year he ran for alderman in the 33rd ward, backed by the Chicago Teachers Union. And last month some of his students staged a walkout to protest budget cuts in the district. Meegan says he asked his five civics classes to come up with a project to work on this year. Across the board, he says, they wanted to work on changing school lunch.

The Roosevelt lunch protest adds to a chorus of complaints about school food that have appeared this year in the Hancock High School newspaper  and by CPS students who’ve shared photos of their lunch on Twitter.

Still, few CPS food protests have garnered this level of attention. Tim Meegan says last week he got a call from the city’s school board asking to arrange a meeting with the civics class students.  

Monica Eng is a food and health reporter for WBEZ. Follow her at @monicaeng or write to her at meng@wbez.org

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