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Chicago HS Students Boycott Cafeteria Food, Calling It Unhealthy


Students at Roosevelt High School in Chicago's northwest side say they're fed up with their free school lunches. They say the pizza is often burnt, the fruit cups are frozen and options are narrow and unhealthy. Breaking news, students kvetch about their cafeteria. But the students at Roosevelt have set up a website to document their complaints. Hundreds have skipped their lunches in protest. Here's May Oo (ph) who's an honor student at Roosevelt.


MAY OO: We hope to achieve fresher food, healthier food, a larger portion, food that we can actually eat.

SIMON: And this Thursday, they encouraged every student in the Chicago Public Schools to join the boycott. Monica Eng at member station WBEZ has been on the story. Monica, thanks for being with us.

MONICA ENG, BYLINE: Hey, Scott. Great to talk to you.

SIMON: And how did the boycott go?

ENG: Well, the citywide boycott wasn't quite as successful as the school-wide boycott last week where 80 percent of the students decided they were going to skip lunch. This one was a few hundred at Roosevelt, several at Lincoln Park, Lake View, Brighton Park, North Grand. Other high schools joined in. It wasn't quite as concentrated as the ones they had in the past, but they were happy to see that their comrades, so to speak, from around the city helped with the cause.

SIMON: Does the boycott hurt the food contractor, Aramark?

ENG: Well, for each meal a child takes - for each lunch a child takes in Chicago Public Schools, the USDA pays Chicago Public Schools and Aramark $3.15, which they split. So you could see where it would add up.

SIMON: And the whole idea of making it free, there were a number of ideas at work there, right?

ENG: There were. I mean, the free and reduced lunch program can create a lot of paperwork. Kids have to turn it in, their parents have to say how much money they make and then some of it is verified. This can create mountains of paperwork. And in fact, there had been cases of fraudulent paperwork in the past in Chicago Public Schools that the inspector general had to investigate. And so they said, OK, if we make it all free, we get rid of the paperwork, we get rid of the fraud and we get rid of having to write down free, reduced, paid every time a kid goes through the line.

SIMON: And hopefully you get rid of the stigma, too, that some low-income students felt.

ENG: Exactly. And so kids who are on free or reduced lunch don't have to feel like, oh, I'm not going to take this because I don't want people to see what my economic status is. And so that was the theory. They thought that, you know, this is going to make the lunches sail out the door. But it didn't. They really dropped precipitously.

SIMON: Is this a civics class on steroids? The civics teacher, Tim Meegan, at Roosevelt has been central in these protests.

ENG: He has. And he is the teacher of all of the students who started this protest. He did run as sort of an anti-machine candidate backed by the Chicago Teachers Union for alderman earlier this year. He is a bit of a firebrand. But he claims this was all his students' ideas. And I have interviewed the students and they're very passionate about it. They say they want better food and they feel like they can all get behind it. Each time I go to interview, he kind of stands back and he says, you know, I'm going to let you talk to the kids. I have talked to them a bit. But really these kids are carrying a lot of this.

SIMON: Any indication from Aramark, the contractor, or CPS that they want to try and make amends with the complaining students?

ENG: Well, they did have a meeting with the students the day after the school-wide boycott. And they said to them, we want to know, you know, we want you to audit the meals. We want you to tell us what you think and, incidentally, something just came in. The students are getting a remodeled lunchroom. That's coming courtesy of some local politicians. But the students didn't feel like that was any coincidence. So they said they'd like to hear more feedback from the students. But in terms of actual substantive changes, they don't feel like that's there yet, which is why they called for this citywide boycott just a couple of days after what they felt was a frustrating meeting.

SIMON: Monica Eng of WBEZ in Chicago, thanks so much.

ENG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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