It's rare that school cafeteria fare will generate much excitement with anyone, but kids in Chicago Public Schools (CPS), the nation's third-largest district, are taking an especially dim view of the meals plopped onto their trays each lunch hour.
The food is of an alarmingly low grade, students say, and they charge the district's cookbook holds nothing but recipes for small portions of processed fast foods. "Disgusting," "soggy," "rotten," and "discolored" are words they use to describe the dishes. Lunch often "tastes like plastic." On occasion, it is plastic.
In fact, the food is free, but it's so bad that students are grabbing up to a million fewer trays annually. That trend started in 2013, when CPS hired food giant Aramark to run its kitchens. The company now earns around $14 billion annually cooking in prisons, hospitals, schools, and sports stadiums, but over the last two years it has faced widespread criticism over food quality. In late January, students at Chicago's Loyola University joined several other universities around the nation in protesting their school's partnership with Aramark, and several prisons recently ended their contracts with the company for serving rotten food, among other issues.
"We're tired of this. Chicken patties served in schools shouldn't be light pink. Fruit cups and milk shouldn't be frozen," Roosevelt High School junior Samantha Delizo tells MUNCHIES. Aside from pink chicken, students have documented green chicken, brown lettuce, rotten fresh fruit, and a litany of other issues.
Trips trough the lunch line turned into such a horror show that Delizo and her classmates, along with civics teacher Tim Meegan, began organizing boycotts as part of a campaign calling for improvements. Their objective: Convince CPS to provide healthier and higher quality food. If it can't, it should offer alternatives to Aramark.
After making some initial noise and developing a website for the campaign—called "The School Lunch Project: Culinary Denial"—students grabbed the district's and Aramark's attention in late November with boycotts and subsequent bad press.
The moves were designed to lay a financial hit and show the district they're serious. CPS and Aramark receive a combined $3.15 per lunch from the federal government for participating in the USDA's free lunch program. (That leaves Aramark with around $1.57 to spend on each meal. By comparison, meals the company serves in jail cost around $1.30.)
Now, nearly two months after launching the campaign, students and Meegan view The School Lunch Project as a success, if not entirely as intended. It led to minor improvements. Kids can now choose from a small selection of snacks as an alternative to Aramark's lunch; the school restored its defunct slushie machine; and a few new items broke up the burger-pizza-chicken patty menu loop.
However, CPS also attempted to disrupt and derail the campaign by barring Meegan from meetings between the students and district. On the day of the boycott, kids say CPS ordered a semi truck full of top-of-the-line produce in an attempt to entice them away from the protest and make the food appear better for media cameras. And district officials have pinned blame on the lunch ladies.
Those moves, more than anything, made The School Lunch Project a success, Meegan says.
"This is how CPS handles any kind of dissident voice, so I'm glad they handled it how they did," he says. "The kids learned a valuable lesson. How do you change things? And how do you react when you encounter underhanded, dirty tricks? You find ways to overcome those things and work around them.
"This was what we call an authentic learning experience."
The nosedive in food quality can be traced back to Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office. In 2011, Emanuel appointed what was essentially a privatization team to run and reshape CPS. (Chicago doesn't elect its school boards.) It was led by Jean Claude Brizard, a former Rochester, NY superintendent who received a vote of no confidence from teachers just prior to departing for Chicago.
In Rochester, Brizard hired Aramark when he privatized food service. Upon landing in Chicago, he installed Aramark manager Leslie Fowler as CPS's food chief.
Fowler handed her former coworkers a contract worth $100 million annually to feed Chicago's students. Documents posted to The School Lunch Project's website show Fowler dined with Aramark officials twice leading up to the announcement that the company was CPS's new cook. (Fowler did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this story.)
That and other issues related to Fowler's handling of the food service contract led to an investigation by the CPS Office of the Inspector General (OIC) in 2014. It found Fowler wrote Aramark's bid and "engaged in questionable conduct throughout the award process." But the OIG ultimately determined her actions "did not violate applicable ethics policies."
Regardless, the appearance of multicolored chicken, frozen milk, and other alarming issues documented on The School Lunch Project's website coincided with Aramark's arrival. Roosevelt Junior Angel Gonzalez says that's causing kids to skip lunch altogether, and that impacts the classroom.
"Kids don't eat because the food is nasty. If it was better and more kids were eating it, they'd be more focused and have a better day … but now they have no energy and people are sleeping in class," he says.
Along with their criticism, students are suggesting a variety of solutions like off-campus lunch, allowing food delivery, and vending machines with healthier options.
The vending machines won't arrive until next year, however, and the school administration said no to off-campus lunches.
In an attempt to address the food quality, Fowler facilitated a mid-December meeting with students and Aramark managers. Meegan says the meeting ended with Fowler giving students "coloring worksheets" to draw and color in the foods they would like to see. That idea was met with some indignation.
Fowler also asked students to audit the food service. Students say they declined to do so because the request was viewed as an attempt to deflect blame onto the lunch ladies. The kids did, however, agree to taste-test potential new menu items.
While there appeared to be some progress, the project took a new turn over winter break when school administration informed Meegan he could no longer partake in meetings between his students and Fowler.
Meegan says he was told Fowler made the request, and her intent is clear.
"If your team is in the championship game and you have the power to remove the other team's coach so that the students don't have the benefit of being advised by him, then you're going to win the game," he says.
CPS wouldn't comment on questions about Meegan's removal or other specific School Lunch Project-related questions, but in a statement to MUNCHIES it highlighted its work with students and a range of changes made to the lunch menu. CPS notes that it's prevented from making some changes by federal nutritional standards and it stresses its meals are healthy.
But that's up for debate, and CPS and Aramark even refused a WBEZ Freedom of Information Act request for its meal ingredients and nutritional information. The district told WBEZ ingredients in its chicken nuggets were "chicken nuggets" and it wasn't until the Illinois Attorney General's Office got involved that CPS handed over its ingredient list.
The central issue for Meegan and the students, however, isn't nutrition—it's quality. And Meegan notes the only way to improve quality is to spend more money. The district and Aramark don't appear ready to take that step.
CPS CEO Forest Claypool did praise the students, however, and noted in a statement to MUNCHIES that he also led a school lunch boycott.
"As a high school student, I led a school lunch boycott myself when we were unsatisfied with the quality of meals we were being served in our cafeteria," he says. "That led me to experience firsthand, that students were able to make a difference and I commend these students for taking action to organize themselves in an effort to create positive change across the district."
While students say they appreciate that some changes have been made, they view those enacted so far as half-solutions instead of real steps to address the small portions and jail-grade food at the issue's core. And Gonzalez wonders why it takes media scrutiny and student boycotts to convince CPS to cook a reasonable lunch.
"This only happened because they are under pressure. They shouldn't be doing it only when under pressure, but all the time. This is their job—to provide good, healthy food to Chicago students," he says.