First Person

Editor's blog: "Never Seconds" school lunch blog

You may have heard of the 9-year-old blogging sensation Martha Payne, otherwise known as “Veg.” The Scottish primary student is documenting her school lunches with descriptive text, photos and her own rating system in her blog-gone-viral, Never Seconds. As of Thursday, her blog had attracted 1.7 million page views.

Her Food-O-Meter uses a 1-10 scale to rate her school lunch meals. She even counts mouthfuls to gauge serving size. And, she gives meals her own health ratings, again on a 1-10 scale. She notes the cost of her lunches, pretty much 2 British pounds, which is a little m more than $3. Being a kid with a sense of humor, she even documents pieces of hair found in her school lunch. So, far none… See, there is a reason for those hairnets!

Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, an advocate for healthy school lunches, helped Martha become famous in her own right when he sent her an autographed book with the words, “Great work, clever girl. Keep it up.” Being an astute blogger, she immediately posted a photo of his inscription.

Mini Mrs. Q

Martha is not the first person to do this, of course. Mom and teacher Mrs. Q, aka Sarah Wu, got lots of attention for her blog, Fed Up With Lunch, based on her personal pledge in 2010 to each lunch with her kids at school every day.

Wu, too, relied on the power of images and description to garner attention and demand changes in the nation’s school lunch program. Slowly but surely, changes are happening in school cafeterias across the good ‘ol U.S. of A., thanks to new federal school lunch guidelines demanding more whole grains and fruits and veggies and less fats and sugars. (Let’s just not talk about pizza being counted as a vegetable…)

What’s cool about Martha’s blog is that kids from around the globe are sharing their own stories about school lunch. What I find striking is how controlled the portions seem to be compared to American school lunches. In some cases, these lunches are downright skimpy. And Japanese lunches, in particular, look delicious and nutritious with all that rice, fish and vegetables.

What’s in a Scottish school lunch

As for Scottish lunches, at least those served at the Lochgilphead Primary in Argyll, some look appetizing; others rival the fried, starchy fare often seen in American school cafeterias. Yesterday, Martha wrote, she chose the gammon steak (looks like ham to me) with pineapple slices on it, carrot sticks, red pepper slices, exactly two snow peas, some boiled potatoes, and cake with cream for dessert.

“I didn’t finish my gammon because I was unsure about the outside bits which were dark. You can tell now I have a dislike of black food!”

She gave the meal an 8 on her Food-O-Meter, but a 6 for health. Apparently, at her school, you only get access to fruit if you eat your entire meal first, or at least that’s what the kids believe to be true. School officials say students have always been allowed seconds when it comes to fruits and veggies.

Also interesting at her school, students get colored rubber wrist bands in the morning to indicate their noon meal choice – probably so they can’t change their minds later and to ensure there is enough food to go around. Martha’s early blog posts one month ago lamented small servings.

No fair! Fins good at school, and lunch

Some Finnish students weighed in on her blog this week. Not only to Fins rule the world in terms of public education, apparently all Finnish students also get free lunch every day, and, as much food as they want, too! Although, I will say the stew pictured in this photo, supposedly from a Finnish student, doesn’t look all that appetizing with chopped up sausage (or are they hotdog bits?) in it. But there is also the slice of brown bread, a glass of white milk and cucumber slices.

Then there’s a very healthy looking lunch from a student in Glenview, Ill. Yea, USA! Some spaghetti with sauce, a slice of garlic bread, a bag of carrots, a dish of fresh fruit, steamed broccoli and white milk.

What does Veg rank a 10? A meal consisting of chicken curry, broccoli, bread, ice cream and shortbread. However, this perfect 10 rates only a 7 for health.

“The shortbread is really nice because it’s covered in sugar,” Martha writes.

Let’s not forget she’s a kid, after all.

I shared a link to Martha’s blog with my 9-year-old daughter, who refuses to eat the healthy lunches offered in her Boulder Valley school, thinking this could turn into some kind of cool cross cultural connection that also promoted healthy food choices. All my daughter said was, “No fair, they serve Sprite,” after seeing one  of Martha’s school lunch photos.

Maybe your child is a budding foodie or culinary activist. If that’s the case, encourage him or her to submit a photo, ratings and description of our Colorado school lunches to Payne at If it’s published, let us know.


First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.