Richfield Public Schools made national headlines recently, and unfortunately it wasn’t for any of the good work happening in our schools. A video went viral showing more than 40 high school students’ hot lunches being thrown away because their accounts showed a balance over $15 in the negative.
As this has unfolded, we heard from Richfield’s superintendent, the principal, students, community members, state politicians from both parties, and even Bernie Sanders. But one important voice was missing — the actual food service workers at Richfield High School (RHS).
I’ve worked in the kitchen at RHS for three years. There are a lot of reasons why we do this work, but highest on the list is our relationships with students. When lunch starts and the students come in, it’s our favorite part of the day.
‘Look what I got!’
Here’s one example. A special needs student we know usually barely touches his lunch. One day last week he asked me for a turkey ham and cheese sandwich. We didn’t have one ready, but I promised him I’d make him one the next day. The following day when he got his sandwich, he was ecstatic. He was so excited, telling everyone, “Look what I got! Look what I got!” and ate not only the sandwich, but all his lunch — including his fruit and veggies.
I almost cried. That sandwich made his day — and so it made my day. If it helps him to have that sandwich every day, that’s what I’m going to give him, for the rest of his time in high school.
That’s why I love my job. That’s what we do in the kitchen. And that’s why what happened the other week was so disturbing to all of us in the RHS kitchen.
I couldn’t do it anymore
That day, just before lunch began, I was instructed to remove students’ hot lunches who were over that negative $15 balance, and instead give them a cold lunch. I took away a couple of lunches, but I had to stop. I couldn’t do it anymore. It’s wrong.
Not one of us in the kitchen agreed with this plan. In fact, the person shown on video throwing away all those lunches isn’t even a food service worker.
The Richfield School Board approved this policy of giving alternate lunches in 2017. Yes, the district needs to be accountable for its terrible implementation, but that policy should never have been approved.
It was right for the district to apologize to Richfield students. Now it’s time for the district be accountable to its employees, and apologize for putting us in this situation in the first place. We should never be involved with meal debts or giving students alternative lunches. Our job is to feed students and help them feel at home in our schools. Period.
Since that day, there have been many tough conversations about how we move forward. We have seen some good, including a fundraising push that raised enough to wipe out all of the current lunch debt. If we take on this challenge, and don’t just sweep it under the rug, maybe we can end up in a better place for our students and for us as food service workers. But for that to happen, it means that the district’s policy needs to change so this situation never happens again. Every student deserves the same hot meal, no matter what’s in their account.
Grace Jennings is a kitchen production cook at Richfield ISD 280 and a member of SEIU Local 284.
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