A lot of attention in the media is currently focused on the importance of healthy food for children and adolescents. Coverage ranges from Michelle Obama’s presidential initiative to lower childhood obesity in the nation from a staggering 20 percent to just 5 percent by 2030, to more local initiatives with new school regulations for serving healthier food. Since teens spend a great deal of time at school, healthier food in the cafeteria is an important change.
According to Sociedad Latina, a Boston-based organization working with Latino youth and families to end destructive cycles of poverty, health inequities, and lack of educational and professional opportunities among the Latino community, there is definitely much left to be desired in the average school cafeteria. For example, a recent crackdown in Cambridge Massachusetts for lax inspections in public school cafeterias yielded numerous health code violations, including animal droppings around the storage rooms of a cafeteria and a school freezer that was rusted and rotting.
While this situation may be extreme, it’s very common for the food offered in school cafeterias to be less than ideal in terms of being healthy. In response, youth activists at Sociedad Latina have taken on this issue and they are working to create healthier food options in school cafeterias in Boston public schools. Vickie Miranda and Achly Esparra are two teen representatives for Sociedad’s School Lunch Campaign. According to Miranda, the School Lunch Campaign was launched with a mission focused on “eating healthy in schools because that’s where we spend most of our time, besides home. If we don’t eat [at school], we don’t have the energy to learn.”
Last year’s controversial finding by councilor-at-large John R. Connolly, that several Boston public schools had been storing foods past their expiration date,and serving them to students, was one of the catalysts that initially drove the Campaign.
Both Miranda and Vickie believe that most Boston Public School (BPS) students don’t even eat school lunch. They explained: “Some students skip lunch altogether and some leave school to go to Burger King or Subway to get food, and then come back to school.” Either way, they aren’t getting a good lunch.
Esparra’s role as a dancer is one of the reasons she feels that working on the Campaign is incredibly important. “I got involved because of my dancing. I wanted to learn more about eating healthy and all things that involve healthy habits…especially eating, because I love food!” Miranda said: “I got involved because I eat school lunch. I eat at school because I know I won’t be able to eat anything else during school hours. And for me, I want to eat healthy. And if the food at school isn’t healthy, meaning that the food that I eat most of the time isn’t healthy, then I’m not healthy.”
The girls would like to see more healthy and great-tasting foods in their cafeteria. Esparra noted that they “want healthy food that tastes good, not just healthy food that tastes awful.” Miranda added, ”In my school we have fruit, such as oranges and apples, but I would prefer more variety of fruit. Like at one point we had grapes, but then they disappeared.”
You may wonder how a teen-led campaign facilitated change in public schools. First, the teens started talking about what they wanted to change, and how they thought they could make that change. From there, Esparra and Miranda passed out 300 surveys at schools and in the community that asked students directly what kind of food and changes they would like to see in their cafeterias. More than 70 percent of the respondents were in favor of establishing a salad/fruit bar in their school. Esparra and Miranda, alongside their peers, then began having conversations with their school cafeteria managers and principals to build support. In the early fall, they presented their idea to expand the salad bars in high schools to the director of the food and nutrition services.
The Campaign has been very successful. It has established salad bars in two new high schools, with more planned for the future. In fact, Miranda and Esparra have secured a commitment from the BPS director of food and nutrition services to establish salad bars in all BPS high schools. Miranda believes that they are off to a good start, but said: “There are millions of others schools, millions of other students, who are still not eating healthy, not eating while at school, or leaving school to eat. It is really important to try to get healthy foods and to try and keep students in school and keep them awake in classes.” In addition, Esparra would like to more see more food prepared in the cafeteria, as opposed to microwave meals, because she believes that “cooking real food is also part of eating healthy.”
Miranda and Esparra attribute much of the success of the School Lunch Campaign to Sociedad Latina’s genuine concern for the health of young people. And they feel it’s important for girls to be activists in their own communities because “it shows that we’re trying to do something—we’re trying to make a change [for the better.] When people see that a girl is doing something about [a problem], it makes them think that at least someone cares about what’s going on in the community.”
Miranda complemented the thought: “Since we’re teenagers, people think that we don’t take anything seriously.” Miranda often sees the ‘she’s-not-gonna-take-this-job-seriously-because-she’s-a-teenager’ mentality. She stated: “But then, people see what we do here and they see how we take it seriously, so they see that the stereotypes aren’t correct.”
Sociedad staff member Melissa Luna reflected: “I think it’s very important for adults to act as allies for our young women and encourage their leadership and participation. In most schools, students and their abilities are taken for granted. Every youth has the potential to become a leader and make their school a better place. These young women have take on this charge and created a positive change for both themselves and their peers.”
Esparra advises: If you want to inspire change in your own community, whether it’s in your school cafeteria or elsewhere, “find an interest…My interest is me; I want to be healthy; I want to be fit. I think that finding motivation is the first move, the first step that you need to take to move forward.”
So do some reflective thinking, girls, and decide what you want to change in your community, then figure out your first step. By moving one step at a time, in collaboration with others, you too can change the negative stereotypes of teens—and create positive change in your community. Go to it!
For more information on efforts to increase healthy lunches in schools, see “The Secret Life of Lunch: Teen Voices Goes Beyond the Mystery Meat” in the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of the Teen Voices print magazine (pp. 19-21).
For more information on Sociedad Latina and their School Lunch Campaign, see: http://sociedadlatinaschoollunch.blogspot.com/p/sociedad-latina-school-lunch-goals.html