Student activists demand lunch justice in Milwaukee schools

‘We cannot learn if we are hungry,’ say members of Youth Empowered in the Struggle

By: - April 2, 2022 6:00 am
YES members design signs for the campaign for lunch justice. (Photo | Courtesy of Joe Brusky/MTEA)

YES members design signs for the campaign for lunch justice. (Photo | Courtesy of Joe Brusky/MTEA)

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

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

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

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

The district cooks lunches at a central kitchen, then sends them to individual schools where they are reheated. The result is “ under-cooked food and substandard quality,” Villanueva said. “This is not acceptable.”

YES is demanding that MPS provide food cooked at the school by food service staff, using locally sourced ingredients. The group is also pushing for larger, more filling portions; a system to identify and respect personal, religious, cultural, medical or other diary needs; and more food options in the lunchroom. The group is calling on  Milwaukee school board members to meet with the student activists regularly to ensure the demands are met.

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

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

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 the student activists will raise the issue in May as part of the Day Without Latinxs and Immigrants general strike. The action day will also focus on ongoing immigration policy issues, including resisting obstruction to immigration reform, drivers licenses for all, and in-state tuition equity for undocumented students.

Last September, images showing food served to MPS students surfaced online, including a gray-green hamburger patty with no bread, and a side of carrots. One of the posts compared the meal to a picture allegedly of lunch served at the county jail.

In a Channel 4 WTMJ news report on  the controversy, MPS board President Bob Peterson said, “It’s essential for us to be able to convince kids this food is healthy and tasty.” Renee Slotten-Beauchamp, operations manager for the Department of Nutrition Services, addressed the pictures. “It was a hamburger patty and carrots. That’s all that was shown,” said Slotten-Beauchamp. “We had a bun, we had condiments and we had a fresh, I believe it was a plum that day.”

Another breakfast for students reported by TMJ4 included a package of graham crackers, and sugary cranberry raisins. There’s also the notorious mock chicken leg which was once served at MPS, a breaded pork chop vaguely shaped like a chicken leg.

Peterson told Wisconsin Examiner that he’s “pleased that the YES members are speaking up on what they are concerned about, and look forward to working with them at the school board to see what we can do to satisfy their needs.” In order to achieve some of the demands, the district will have to overcome certain logistical challenges, such as preparing food on-site at the schools. “That’s what we used to do,” explained Peterson, but the district has been unable to hire enough food service employees. “We have 150 job openings for kitchen workers, and that’s why we had to revert back to preparing food elsewhere, that’s trucked in.”

Food at MPS “is not fresh,” said Doricela Herrera, a YES member and freshman at the Milwaukee School of Languages. “The meat looks under-cooked most of the time, the cheese looks like plastic, and the bun for the burgers is not fresh. The vegetables are not fresh. The fruits are somewhat fresh and taste fine. But a variety of fruits and vegetables  should be an option for every student.”

A screenshot of a social media post raising the alarm about MPS lunch food. (Screenshot from Facebook)
A screenshot of a social media post comparing MPS lunch food on the leftwith more attractive jail food on the right. (Screenshot from Facebook)

Because of the food quality, Herrera brings her own lunch when she’s able. “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 single day having to worry about what I am consuming, and the freshness and if it’s healthy for me. I should be able to have fresh and stable food and have a healthy meal every single day. This shouldn’t be a problem at all.”

For families living in poverty, the issue is even more important, she added. “Some families might not have enough to provide for their kids and rely on school lunches, but their kids have to eat what MPS serves,” Herrera said.

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

As a Muslim student, Mandeeq Adulahi, a YES member and junior at Riverside High School, sees many fellow Muslim students go hungry because the lunches don’t meet their religious dietary requirements. “This is not far,” Adulahi said.

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

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

Smith said improving food service could create better jobs. “Knowing that you are paid the bare minimum to cut costs for someone else’s quota is not only degrading but dehumanizing,” she said. “Having equitable wages is not only promoting a sense of self-worth, but it’s adequately paying these hard working people for doing the job that they’ve been doing all along.”

Peterson underscored wages as a persistent issue. Since January 2021, MPS has offered all of its employees a $15 minimum wage. “Obviously it might not be enough to recruit a sufficient number of kitchen help,” said Peterson. “We’re struggling with that.”

Smith connected adequate food and food service employees who are paid appropriately to the student experience.  “We can not learn if we are hungry,” Smith said. “We need to be fed, but our staff need to pay their bills and provide for their families. This demand needs to be treated with equity and with no shortcuts, because no one deserves shortcuts taken at their expense.”

Luz Chaparro Hernandez, a 3d grade bilingual teacher at Allen Field Elementary, attended Milwaukee public schools as a child. The daughter of immigrants, she tasted lasagna for the first time in the 5th grade. “It was delicious,” she recalled. She wishes that students today “would have the memories that I have of a nutritious, but also a very very good MPS lunch.”

There were more people in the school district kitchens then who prepared the food, said Chaparro Hernandez, who is a member of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association and Voces de la Frontera. “I really wish that the district really provided what it needs to provide for the students to have healthy lunches,” she said.

Ultimately the school district’s budget will shape what demands by YES members 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 kids,” said Peterson, criticizing Republican lawmakers for rejecting proposals by Gov. Tony Evers, and supported by a business coalition earlier this year, to increase public school funding.

“The Republicans spend 15 seconds gaveling down any special session that’s got to deal with the kids,” Peterson said. “So, it’s clear we’re stretched financially in terms of recruitment of employees. We have job openings in almost every category: teachers, councilors, building helpers, para-professionals, health aides, and kitchen help. And it would be great to be able to reimbuse them all at a higher level. But, at this point, it’s going to be really touch given the inaction of the Wisconsin legislature.”


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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Holmes' video work dates back to his high school days at Wauwatosa East High, when he made a documentary about the local police department. Since then, his writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets. He was also featured in the 2018 documentary The Chase Key, and was the recipient of the Sierra Club Great Waters Group 2021 Environmental Hero of the Year award. The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council also awarded Holmes its 2021-2022 Media Openness Award for using the open records laws for investigative journalism. Holmes was also a finalist in the 2021 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards alongside the rest of the Wisconsin Examiner's staff. The Silver, or second place, award for Best Online Coverage of News was awarded to Holmes and his colleague Henry Redman for an investigative series into how police responded to the civil unrest and protests in Kenosha during 2020. Holmes was also awarded the Press Club's Silver (second-place) award for Public Service Journalism for articles focusing on police surveillance in Wisconsin.