The Other 60 Percent

“Lunch ladies” fight back

The cover from one in the "Lunch Lady" graphic novel series by Jarrett Krocoszka says it all. Lunch ladies - and kitchen managers and school food service and nutrition directors - are fighting back against a negative public perception.

Montana dietitian Dayle Hayes thinks school lunchrooms are getting a bad rap – blamed for serving rotten food, creating the childhood obesity epidemic and, ultimately, putting our nation’s very future at risk.

School “lunch ladies” can be forgiven, she said, if they’re starting to take it personally.

“I know how hard you work, from early morning to late in the afternoon to feed Colorado kids,” Hayes told a gathering of 270 of those lunch ladies – and a smattering of “lunch gentlemen” – meeting Saturday in Aurora for the Colorado School Nutrition Association fall conference. “Without the food you make, many of those children simply could not learn.”

Hayes drew applause when she blasted celebrity chef Jamie Oliver – who famously tangled with “Lunch Lady Alice” while attempting to remake the Huntington, W.V. schools’ menu this year for his Food Revolution reality TV series.

Oliver was appalled to find one school – in the city deemed America’s least fit – serving pizza and chocolate milk for breakfast, and chicken nuggets and reconstituted mashed potato “pearls” for lunch. But locals didn’t quickly take to the British chef foisting his ideas onto their kids’ lunch trays.

“It’s really all about Jamie Oliver and Jamie Oliver’s celebrity than about making fundamental changes,” Hayes said.

British TV chef Jamie Oliver has drawn praise and criticism for his efforts to change the menu in some U.S. schools.

“He chose to focus just on the negative things instead of including all the good things that go on there too.” More wild applause. Hayes clearly struck a chord with this group of school nutrition directors, kitchen managers and cooks.

Hayes, a nutrition coach, writes the “Eat Well at School” blog, runs the Nutrition for the Future website and has a Facebook page “School Meals that Rock.” She travels the country talking to dietitians, food service directors and other involved in feeding kids at home and school.

She’s convinced that the current childhood obesity debate is missing the mark.

“Parents point fingers at the schools, and the schools point fingers at the parents, and we all love to point fingers at McDonald’s,” she said. “Sometimes we get so caught up in finger-pointing that we forget to talk about just what our children are eating.”

She worries that far too many children are overfed but undernourished. She points out that 90 percent of teen-age girls and 70 percent of teen-age boys fail to get enough calcium.

Children and teens’ intake of vitamins, folic acid, magnesium, phosphorus, iron and zinc are all well below recommended levels, and the least nourished group in the country is teen-age girls, she said. She lays much of the blame on the nation’s obsession with thinness.

Montana dietitian Dayle Hayes thinks the blame for childhood obesity has been misplaced.

“You see these teen-age girls go through the lunch lines, and they won’t take the meat, they only want a salad or a diet soda,” she said.

She criticized school districts that have banned chocolate-flavored milk, especially now that milk providers are offering low-fat flavored substitutes.

This has been a major controversy in Colorado school nutrition circles, as milk consumption typically plummets once chocolate milk is no longer an option.

“Some people are going off the deep end,” Hayes said, again to much applause. “I personally do not want to live in a world without chocolate. Along with that little extra sugar in chocolate milk comes a lot of nutrients. And now that we have chocolate milk formulations that are so low-fat, we should be considering them.”

Hayes also dished up some disparagement for those who insist schools ought not be in the food service business at all, and that sack lunches from home are a better alternative. In fact, she said, studies show that school lunches contain three times more dairy, twice as much fruit and seven times the vegetables as the typical sack lunch from home.

“School meals are the one place that must meet strict guidelines for quality and nutritional value in the food served,” she said. “We are not the problem. We are in the forefront of the solution.”

Hayes isn’t the only one feeling unfairly put upon these days. Jody Houston, Director of Food Services for the Corpus Christie, Texas, school district and another speaker at the conference, urged school food service employees to be savvy marketers. She was promoting “Tray Talk,” a new public relations campaign put together by the School Nutrition Association to emphasize the benefits of school meals and showcase success stories from school districts nationwide.

“What’s the story we want to tell?” Houston asked. “We need to show that school meals are healthy meals.”

A recent School Nutrition Association survey of its members found widespread changes in the offing in school lunchrooms. Among the findings:

  • More than nine out of 10 school districts are increasing their offerings of whole grain products and fresh produce.
  • Nearly 70 percent of districts are reducing or eliminating sodium in foods.
  • About two-thirds of districts are reducing or limiting added sugar.
  • More than half of districts are increasing vegetarian options.
  • More than two-thirds of districts with vending services are increasing the availability of healthier beverages in the vending machines.

Houston sees marketing devices such as Tray Talk as a needed counterbalance to websites such as “Fed Up With Lunch: The School Lunch Project,” in which an anonymous Midwestern adult female blogger chronicles her experiences eating school lunches every day for a year, along with some distinctly unappetizing photos.

“It’s quite negative,” Houston said.

Anecdotally, more school districts also appear to be launching farm-to-school programs to provide more locally-grown foods in school lunchrooms.

Jill Kidd, director of food services for the Pueblo city school district, said she most appreciated the chance simply to network with other food service directors and kitchen managers.

“It’s good just to sit with other people for awhile and hear about what they’re doing,” she said.

Rebecca Jones can be reached at [email protected].

Business of education

Memphis leaders say diversifying school business contracts will help in the classroom, too

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Winston Gipson confers with his wife and daughter, who help run Gipson Mechanical Contractors, a family-owned business in Memphis for 35 years.

Winston Gipson used to do up to $10 million of work annually for Memphis City Schools. The construction and mechanical contracts were so steady, he recalls, that his minority-owned family business employed up to 200 people at its peak in the early 2000s.

Looking back, Gipson says being able to build schools was key to breaking through in the private sector.

“When we got contracts in the private sector, it’s because we did the projects in the public sector,” said Gipson, who started Gipson Mechanical Contractors with his wife in 1983. “That allowed us to go to the private sector and say ‘Look what we’ve done.’”

But that work has become increasingly scarce over the years for him and many other minorities and women. The program designed to address contract disparities in Memphis City Schools was cut during its 2013 merger with Shelby County Schools.

A recent study found that a third of qualified local companies are owned by white women and people of color, but such businesses were awarded just 15 percent of the contracts for Shelby County Schools in the last five years.

It was even worse for black-owned construction companies, like Gipson’s, which make up more than a third of the local industry but were awarded less than 1 percent of contracts.

The disparity is being spotlighted as the city prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the death of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated in Memphis while trying to fight for the rights of minority workers in 1968.

On Jan. 25, Chalkbeat will co-host a panel discussion on how Shelby County Schools, as one of the city’s largest employers, can be an economic driver for women- and black-owned businesses. Called “Show Me The Money: The Education Edition,” the evening event will be held at Freedom Preparatory Academy’s new Whitehaven campus in conjunction with MLK50 Justice Through Journalism and High Ground News.

Community leaders say school-related business contracts are a matter of equity, but also an education strategy. Since poverty is a crucial factor in why many Memphis students fall behind in school, the lack of job opportunities for their parents must be part of the discussion, they say.

The district already is taking steps to improve its record on minority contracting, starting with setting new goals and resurrecting the city district’s hiring program.

Big district, big opportunity

Shelby County Schools is Tennessee’s largest district. With an annual budget of more than $1 billion, it awards $314 million in business contracts.   

An otherwise dismal 1994 study of local government contract spending highlighted Memphis City Schools’ program to increase participation of historically marginalized businesses as one of the county’s most diverse, though some areas were cited as needing improvement. The same study criticized the former county school system, which lacked such a program, for its dearth of contracts with Minority and Women Business Enterprises (MWBEs).

But when the two districts merged in 2013, the program in Memphis City Schools disappeared.

“We had to cut, cut, cut,” said school board member Teresa Jones. “We were trying to stay alive as a district. We did not focus as we should have.”

Jones, a former school board chairwoman, said it’s time to revisit the things that were working before the merger. “We have to get back,” she said, “to make sure there’s equity, opportunity, access, and an atmosphere that promotes business with Shelby County Schools.”

District and community leaders say the consolidated district has lost its ability to develop relationships with qualified minority-owned businesses.

“There was an infrastructure where African-Americans felt comfortable enough approaching the school system” for work, said Melvin Jones, CEO of Memphis Business Contracting Consortium, a black business advocacy group formed in 2015. “There was trust. During the merger, they dropped the infrastructure.”

Brenda Allen

Without the outreach, “we’re seeing the same vendors,” said Brenda Allen, hired last summer as procurement director for Shelby County Schools after working in Maryland’s Prince George County Public Schools, where she oversaw a diversity contracting program.

“We’re not marketing the district like we should,” she told school board members in November.  

Shelby County Schools is not alone in disproportionately hiring white and male-owned companies for public business. Just 3 percent of all revenue generated in Memphis goes to firms owned by non-white people, even though people of color make up 72 percent of the city’s population, according to a 2016 report by the Mid-South Minority Business Council Continuum.

Not coincidentally, district and community leaders say, Memphis has the highest rate of young adults who aren’t working or in college, and the highest poverty rate among the nation’s major metropolitan areas. About 60 percent of students in Shelby County Schools live in poverty and all but three of the district’s schools qualify for federal funding for schools serving high-poverty neighborhoods.

Jozelle Luster Booker, the CEO of the MMBC Continuum, developed an equity contracting program for the city utility company following the 1994 study that was so critical of the city. The program funneled half a billion dollars to minority-owned businesses — an example of how government policies can promote equitable contracting, and grow businesses too.

“When that happens, you could basically change the socioeconomic conditions of that community, which impacts learning,” Booker said. “They’re ready to learn when they come to school.”

Shelby County Schools plans to hire a consulting firm to help develop a procurement outreach program and set diversity goals for its contractors and subcontractors. The program will launch in July, and Allen plans to hire three people to oversee it.

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Bricklayers from TopCat Masonry Contractors LLC work on an apartment complex in downtown Memphis in 2014.

The district also is part of a city-led group that provides a common certification process for businesses seeking contracts with city and county governments, the airport, the transit authority, and Memphis Light Gas & Water. The city’s office of business diversity and compliance also has a list of qualified minority businesses, offers free business development courses, and accepts referrals from other government entities to reduce redundancy.

“As you spend public dollars, you always want those dollars to be spent in your neighborhoods because that money comes back into your economy,” Allen said. “When people have jobs, you should see crime go down. You should see more people wanting to do business in the community if you have a good program.”

Leveling the playing field

In order for it to work, there has to be consistent reports, measures and, most of all,  accountability, according to Janice Banks, CEO of Small Planet Works, who helped the district with its disparity study.

Gipson agrees.

A wall of his second-floor Memphis office is lined with photos of some of his most significant projects during his 35 years of business, including a multimillion-dollar mechanical contract with AutoZone when the Memphis-based car part company moved its headquarters downtown in the early 2000s.

The work was made possible, he said, because of public sector jobs like constructing nine schools under Memphis City Schools. But that work evaporated after the merger. “It’s mostly been Caucasian companies that do the work (now),” he said. “It’d be one thing if you didn’t have anyone qualified to do it.”

Shelby County Schools will have to show commitment, he said, if it wants to level the playing field.

“You have the mechanism in place to make a difference,” he said. “Now do you make a difference with that mechanism or do you just walk around, beat your chest, and say we have a disparity study and let things run the way they’ve been running?”

“If you don’t make it happen, it will not happen,” he said.

college plans

As Washington decides their fate, ‘Dreamers’ preparing for college are stuck in limbo

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Randi Smith, a psychology teacher at Metro State University, marched to support Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals during a citywide walkout in downtown Denver, CO.

While many high schoolers spend spring of their senior year coasting through classes and waiting to hear back from colleges, undocumented students who hope to attend college spend their time calling lawyers, consulting school counselors, and scouring the internet in search of ways to pay for school without the help of federal financial aid or student loans — assuming they even get in.

That process, anxiety-provoking even in a normal year, has become incalculably more chaotic this admissions season — even traumatic — as these young undocumented immigrants watch President Trump and lawmakers wrangle over Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the program that has until now allowed them to remain in the country without having to fear deportation.

As the policy battle nears a climax, these students aren’t just breathlessly waiting to learn whether they’ll be accepted into college — they’re waiting to see whether they have a future in this country.

“It’s different for me. It’s definitely more stressful and there are times when you want to give up,” said an undocumented student at KIPP NYC College Prep High School, who is graduating this year and applying to colleges. She requested anonymity because of her legal status. “But then I remind myself that regardless of what’s going on, I’m still going to do what I’ve set myself to do.”

High school counselors are also feeling the strain. They already faced the difficult task of helping undocumented students compete for private scholarships, and finding schools that will support those students once they’re on campus. Now those counselors also must monitor each twist and turn of the immigration debate in Washington, while, somehow, trying to keep their undocumented students focused on college.

One of those counselors is John Kearney, who works at Guadalupe Centers Alta Vista High School, a charter school in Kansas City, Missouri. Dozens of his soon-to-graduate students are beneficiaries of DACA, a program created under former President Obama that allows undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children to avoid deportation and work here legally. Lately, they have been asking him why they should even consider college when their fate in the U.S. is so uncertain.

“The big question is, ‘Why? Why go to college, and then I can’t even work, then why?’” said Kearney, who also helped start a nonprofit that provides scholarships to undocumented students. “It’s a really tough question.”

As of Friday, President Trump and lawmakers were still locked in heated negotiations over DACA, which Trump said this fall that he would eliminate unless Congress enshrined it in law. Without an agreement, it is set to expire March 5, just as graduating seniors firm up their college plans. If that happens, young immigrants, often called Dreamers, could lose the few crucial protections they have. For many, their DACA status has already lapsed.

Even with DACA’s protections, Dreamers face massive hurdles to enroll in college: They don’t qualify for federal aid or loans, and, in some states, are barred from receiving financial aid or even attending public universities. Out of the estimated 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from high school every year, only 5-10 percent enroll in college.

Following Trump’s announcement in September, counselors have also had to race against the clock counting down to DACA’s expiration: That meant juggling college application deadlines with the October cutoff for students to apply for renewed DACA status.

The KIPP charter school network received a donation this year to help students pay for the renewal fee, which has been a godsend for many students — including the young woman who is graduating from KIPP NYC College Prep High School.

As soon as she learned the school would pay the fee for her, she immediately called her father, who is also undocumented and repairs beauty-salon equipment for a living.

“My dad was definitely trying to round up the money before the deadline, so it was a blessing that the school was able to find a donor,” she said. “I told him not to worry about it and it was a relief — like a weight off his shoulders.”

If the girl was trying to relieve her father’s stress, her college counselor, Rob Santos, was trying to do the same for her. Even as she balanced college-application essays, transcripts, and the rest, she was also coming to realize how quickly her life would change if DACA is not extended.

“There was definitely extra emotional support that I’ve had to provide this year,” Santos said. “I definitely had my DACA student in my office, and tears were happening.”

Santos keeps a running list of the colleges that accept students who don’t have permanent legal status and the few scholarships available to them. Many of those scholarships require undocumented students to have DACA status. If the program ends, it’s unclear whether students will still be eligible.

Still, Santos said his dreamer student rarely talks about the political furor surrounding her future in the U.S. as she awaits her college-acceptance letter. Instead, she’s more likely to discuss her hope of one day studying business and fashion.

“Our DACA students are resilient. They’re optimistic,” Santos said. “But they’re also realistic for what could actually happen.”