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Working with Youth to Solve Food Problems in Schools

By Amelie Valdes

A young student with dark skin and dark hair puts milk on their tray from a school lunch line. They have a sandwich, beans and fruit cup on their tray..
A student being served lunch. Photo sourced from NBC News (by Mary Esch).

Food is one of the basic things we need to live. With good food, we function well. This applies to the breakfast we eat early in the morning, and the lunch that is easy to skip, but not so easy to be without. Being well nourished helps us focus and retain information, this is why I believe every student should have access to good food. School food is not helping students succeed, and it goes deeper than one bad lunch.

Lack of access to good food in schools is a symptom of many systemic problems that communities of color face. Having the ability to take your own food to school, pay for school lunch, or even eat outside of school are privileges that many don’t benefit from. School food is many student’s main source of food, making it even more important for them to have access to it to be able to simply live. Students want fresh and healthy food, and I realize that my ability to learn, retain information, participate in class and overall succeed in school increases when I have access to this.


When I enter the cafeteria and I am provided with food that is cold, not fresh or not culturally relevant, I am left hopeless. When talking about “cultural relevance”, I am referring to wanting other cultures to be represented in food since schools are filled with such a large diversity. When I encounter the lack of this, along with the other unhealthy facts, I know there aren’t great outcomes. Students are left with either skipping lunch or leaving campus to get food. When I do eat lunch, I have to pay for it, which often leaves me with lunch debt. Focusing on learning when you owe your school money is something very complicated and unfair that I have dealt with. I remember not being allowed to participate in fun experiences because I owed my school money. This is understandable financially but not when talking about a ten year old that felt the need to choose between eating or going on a field trip. This affected my image poorly at a young age. When students take another path and leave school to get lunch, it is not uncommon to get racially profiled or perceived as a bad person because they are teenagers. This can escalate into getting law enforcement involved, getting searched, getting followed or accused. Getting publicly shamed by a man that was accusing me of stealing and proceeded to search my bags to find nothing, definitely took a toll on my emotional state. Going off campus for food not only affects the mental state of students, but they are also robbed of their time, causing students to get back to school late. With being late comes the potential consequence of having to go to truancy court; this feeds students into the school to prison pipeline, and then affects their future, hurting their ability to graduate or go to college. This might appear as something strange or only for extreme cases but when I look around me and look at the different situations that there are, it really isn’t. If a student decides to skip lunch, it might not seem too serious, but can negatively impact their ability to learn and their mental health as well. According to the ACLU, “students suspended or expelled for a discretionary violation are nearly 3 times more likely to be in contact with the juvenile justice system the following year”. This demonstrates that if schools enforce these consequences, they could be reinforcing the school to prison pipeline. Eating well can improve your sense of wellbeing and your mood; if I’m not able to eat well, I can’t function or have energy to focus on what I need to do. So really, youth are stuck - no matter what decision I make inside the established school food system, I feel stuck.


With the consequences that there are for many students, we know there is a problem and I believe that youth have the solutions, they just need to be heard and empowered. At the end of the day, all students are different and have different needs, listening to their ideas is a way to take those needs into account. Students want to be heard and they should be heard, since they are the ones going through these tough situations. If students feel empowered to speak up, they can come up with the best solutions to establish a system that works for everyone. Youth come from many different cultures and they need to acknowledge that the people they sit next to at school everyday come from other cultures as well. Operating with cultural relevance makes a huge difference and teaches students how to be inclusive. Collaborating with youth can make food in schools more equitable. When more people are involved, there is more possibility for growth. When co-creating with young people, things will flourish.


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