Youth for Healthy Schools Statement on the Reauthorization of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act
As the future of public school nutrition standards is debated in Congress, there is one critically important stakeholder group that is consistently left out of the conversation – the 30 million students who eat food in public school every day. This statement was collectively written by young people of color across the country building power through organizing to improve school and community wellness.
Congress: Our Health and Our Lives are at Stake
We support maintaining and strengthening healthier standards in the reauthorization of the Healthy and Hunger Free Kids Act. All of the proposed changes to the standards that corporate lobbyists are pushing for (increasing sodium levels, reducing whole grain requirements, and eliminating the fruit and vegetable requirement) may make the lives of decision-makers easier, but they don’t make students’ lives better. We, as students, are concerned about our own health. We may be the first generation that has a lower life expectancy than our parents. Many of us live in what the USDA defines as a “food desert”, which does not give us many options to find healthy food outside of school. We deserve to have access to healthy, fresh and nutritious foods inside our public school cafeterias. Leading healthy lives starts with getting fresh produce that is grown locally, that is culturally appropriate and that supports local economies. Being forced to eat food with high sodium and fat content, highly processed grains, and devoid of fresh fruits and vegetables ensures the survival of powerful corporations, but not the survival of students.
Media: Missing the Root of the Problem
The coverage of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act has largely ignored the role of major food corporations in shaping what the $10 billion school lunch market looks like, the exclusion of students and parents from power in school food decisions, and real solutions to our school food crisis like increased funding for farm to school programs. When students are involved, we are only asked to react to the food that is served. The conversation that we want to have is about where our food is coming from and why we receive food that is not actually prepared or cooked but simply warmed, defrosted or unwrapped after being in transit for hundreds or thousands of miles.
Our poorest communities are already fighting an attack on the hungry and we will not stand for the nutrition standards to be on the congressional chopping block as well. The barrier to student satisfaction is not nutrition standards, it is corporate profits as the number one priority of adults. We know this because the entire world is at the mercy of corporatized food systems that are keeping the poor hungry, malnourished and obese with highly processed junk food while destroying Earth’s environment. We believe a way to heal is by increasing access to real, local foods in schools and for our poorest communities, re-enforcing our beliefs in land and food sovereignty (i.e. the ability to control our own food systems.), and revitalizing small farmers.
Youth: Leading with Real Solutions
We are not simply sitting back and waiting for lawmakers to take action. See below for some of the real solutions we have already created to increase the health and well-being of our schools and communities.
Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools and the Food Justice Collective
The New Orleans student of color population is at risk when it comes to the nutritional standards of school meals. In Orleans Parish, an alarming 83.8% of public school students are eligible for free or reduced-priced lunch compared to the national average of 48.1%. Students eligible for free or reduced-priced lunch disproportionately affects students of color where 88.1% of Black students are eligible compared to 28.9% of white students. Not only do many students live with families with incomes below the poverty line, they also live in neighborhoods with lack of food access. For instance in New Orleans East (17% of the population of New Orleans), Winn Dixie was the only large grocery store in the area and took 2 years to reopen after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
As a result of malnourishing school meals, food deserts (communities where there is no food or it’s hard to access food), lack of access to own our food systems coupled with lack of access to land that allows us to have our own food system, we don’t see culturally competent food, real food, nor fresh or healthy food in our diets.
We see the attack on healthy school meals as an educational justice issue. In New Orleans we face a reality of excessive testing, a transient and inexperienced educator workforce (since all veteran teachers were fired after Katrina) that is under increased pressure to work longer hours for stagnant pay and benefits, no union, budget cuts, teacher evaluations that force teachers to teach to a test, and charter management organizations taking over our public school system that has deeply affected us as students of color. We don’t need a roll back on nutritional standards when school lunches are often the only meal we get to eat every day.
The Food Justice Collective, a collaboration between Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools and VEGGI Farmers’ Cooperative, is a multi-lingual and multi-ethnic youth of color farming cooperative that uses analysis of the food system and the practice of collectively maintaining a farm plot as a way to unearth systems of white supremacy and colonization that are at the root of why marginalized people lack access to healthy food and access to land and opportunities that would allow for food sovereignty As a collective these 13 young people have invested in their own money from stipends provided through the program and their time to maintain and operate their budget, purchase seeds, tools, and other equipment, and develop relationships and an accountability structure necessary to carry out their farm plan.
“Imagine if each neighborhood suffering from food deserts and food racism had groups of young people working with their elders, schools, and community members to turn blighted land into farms and gardens that actually fed us real and fresh food- then we would be the ones in control of our own health and wealth for our families and communities”- Juan Fortanel. “Running our own cooperative and thus owning our own food systems is important to us so we can guarantee that the money stays within the community and the quality of food is fresh and real.” – Ron Triggs
InnerCity Struggle organizes in East Los Angeles where the majority of Latina/os do not have access to healthy food. Many consider the Eastside a food desert because of the lack of accessible and organic grocery stores in residential neighborhoods. One in 3 Latina/o children are considered obese in East Los Angeles. The Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act (2010) created an opportunity for schools to address the negative impacts that the majority of Latina/o youth face by providing healthy food in our schools. The dismantling of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act standard would have adverse effects on youth who are dependent on schools to provide healthy school food. There are still areas within the original act which to improve upon; for example the lack of corporate accountability. Major food corporations should be held accountable in the event they are not meeting school food standards.
In 2011, InnerCity Struggle collected a total of 350 student surveys at six Eastside public high schools (Food Justice for Eastside Schools Policy Report, 2012). The focus of the surveys was on Access to Food, Food Quality and Time. About 76% reported the food being unappetizing and/or inedible. An overwhelming 33% of the food being served was considered high fat main dishes such as chicken nuggets, burritos, and hamburgers. Thus, students were not eating the food supplied by major food corporations because the main issues dishes did not meet healthy food standards.
InnerCity Struggle sought to address the issues Latina/o youth faced, in particular with access to food during the beginning of the school day. United Students’, the youth component of InnerCity Struggle, surveyed youth and reported that youth were not eating breakfast due to public transportation delays, family obligations such as dropping off younger siblings at their school and so forth. Students also reported having difficulties concentrating and focusing during class because they had not had any food intake until lunchtime. Supported by research emphasizing the importance of health and student academic success, InnerCity Struggle led and won the Breakfast in the Classroom resolution (2011) with the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). The new district policy granted time before instruction started for teachers to distribute food in the classroom at all district schools, ensuring that all LAUSD students were given the opportunity to eat
InnerCity Struggle recognizes the health disparities that the Eastside faces. Schools are at the epicenter of communities that can serve as a hub of resources. After the passing of the Wellness Centers NOW! Resolution (2013), InnerCity Struggle has been working with the district to continue prioritizing our Eastside high schools for the construction of new school-based Wellness Centers. The construction of school based Wellness Centers would provide comprehensive medical, dental, mental and preventative care to students and community members. Wellness Centers would serve as a hub to address negative impacts of unhealthy food; obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, chronic dental care, and vision care.
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