Lunchroom workers in Chicago Public Schools are planning more marches to demand a say in the meals they are serving in school cafeterias.
"We'll be back," they chanted at the first march at the end of January at Chicago Board of Education headquarters in Chicago's Loop. The march ended peacefully but with no CPS action on the "lunch ladies" demands.
Many children aren't eating the prepared meals because they consist of "hard fruits," "vegetables straight out of a can" and unseasoned foods, said Elaine Saffold, a lunchroom worker at Guglielmo Marconi Elementary Community Academy, 230 N. Kolmar Ave.
"They're in school all day long and they go home hungry because they refuse to eat the food," said Saffold, who was present at the march.
"Workers generally acknowledge that strides have been made to improve nutrition in public schools; however, one of the major problems is that children are not necessarily eating the food," said Don Lydon, a volunteer at the workers' union and one of the members who compiled the survey responses.
In the survey report, the lunchroom staff members are recommending that CPS do the following: incorporate and solicit their input in school menus, avoid replacing foods cooked on site with reheated frozen foods, build more full-size cooking kitchens in new schools, provide more training and education for workers and encourage the staffers to keep students and parents informed on food quality and cafeteria safety.
Lunchroom workers cite their views on the meal programs for CPS children and the struggles their schools have been facing in a flier on survey results obtained from 436 lunchroom workers. The fliers were dispersed at the march Tuesday.
The survey conducted by Unite Here Local 1, the union who represents 3,300 CPS "lunch ladies," revealed that 75 percent of the respondents reported not having any input on the new recipes or food that they serve. As a result, less than half of them felt the students were eating the updated school food.
Lydon said that the survey was an attempt for their members to have a voice in whether the changes in the nutrition in public schools were working in CPS.
The report said, "Serving on the frontline, we have a unique perspective on these changes," describing that the lunch workers see the students every day, place the food on their plates and see what gets left in the trash.
Franklin Shuftan, a CPS spokesman, said in a statement that the district introduced new healthful menus in 2010 meeting the nutritional requirements exceeding the U.S. Department of Agriculture meal standards.
CPS enhanced their school menus with a variety of vegetables and fresh fruit served every day, more whole-grains and low-fat dairy. Deep fat frying is prohibited and no trans fat are allowed. This is a departure from the daily nachos the lunchrooms used to serve as a staple entrée, reported by the Chicago Tribune in 2009.
Anna Galli, a parent of a 3rd grade student at Louisa May Alcott Elementary School, 2625 N. Orchard St., said she packs lunch for her daughter every day.
"The dishes are teriyaki chicken or beans with tacos and many children don't like this kind of food," Galli said, adding that the food the school serves should look more appetizing to the students.
Tian-yi Wang, 9, who attends Alcott Elementary School has been enjoying the hamburgers, salads and sandwiches served in his cafeteria, though.
"I really like the food and, sometimes, when my friends don't like it, I just eat it," Wang said.
The workers are also calling for more proper training in the preparation of healthy food options. CPS has worked with food service provider Chartwells-Thompson to offer workers some training on healthy food, but only 26 percent of the workers surveyed said they have received this.
Of those who had the training, 66 percent felt it was helpful in their job and provided them ways to help them cook safe and healthier meals.
Chartwells-Thompson spokeswoman Jean Saunders said in a statement that the company will continue to proceed in the best interests of the district, the students and all employees.