Grand Rapids — Abigail Valdivia, a City High Middle School eighth-grader, was one of approximately 20 students who shared concerns about the quality of school lunches with the GRPS Board of Education earlier this winter.
She said her friends often skip lunch or throw unappetizing items away. “We can’t focus or function without eating and I don’t understand how teachers don’t notice kids not eating all day.”
Now, thanks to Abigail and her peers’ advocacy – and the district’s response – GRPS students will soon see more offerings at the salad bar, more sub sandwiches and chicken (not just drumsticks and nuggets).
“We realize there are opportunities for growth in our food services,” said Philip Greene, GRPS nutrition services director. “We saw great ideas and great things in other districts and we are evaluating right now to see if their ideas are feasible in our district.”
The students from GRPS and neighboring school districts were guided by the nonprofit Urban Core Collective in their advocacy work .The UCC brings six Grand Rapids organizations together to uplift marginalized communities and families. It is currently focused on working with students to equip them with organizing skills. The school lunch campaign is one of their focuses.
After hearing their concerns, Greene worked to address the issue. He invited more students – GRPS’s Student Advocacy Board – to meet with his department and give additional feedback.
Greene and his staff ate lunch in several GRPS cafeterias to “experience what our scholars experience every day.” They also visited cafeterias and discussed best practices regarding food services in Byron Center and Jenison Public Schools, and as far away as Detroit Public Schools and Minneapolis Public Schools, in Minnesota.
As a mother and former teacher, GRPS Superintendent Leadrianne Roby said she appreciates the students’ advocacy for healthy food.
“Please know we hear you. This is an equity issue and is also something we’re working on,” she said at the school board meeting on Jan. 9. “We want to consider what foods are culturally relevant and part of the menu items and provide choices. Our goal is to make changes, provide taste testing opportunities and include the voices of young people.”
The Complex Issue of Food
The idea to address school lunch concerns came from student feedback, said Urban Core Collective strategist Kyle Lim.
In fall 2022, the organization’s Educational Justice Team conducted community listening sessions and a survey for parents, students and school staff members. A common theme emerged: school food is not healthy or appetizing.
“Our survey results showed over 3,000 GRPS students listed quality of food as the number one issue they wish the district to address,” Lim said.
“We want to consider what foods are culturally relevant and part of the menu items and provide choices. Our goal is to make changes, provide taste testing opportunities and include the voices of young people.”— GRPS Superintendent Leandriane Roby
In response to the findings, the UCC worked with students across Kent County to organize a campaign for healthier, appetizing and culturally responsive foods in schools.
“This is an issue that GRPS is facing, but other districts are as well,” said UCC’s education organizer and GRPS alum Betsaida Valdivia. “Food is an intersectional issue and we need to come together and reimagine the state of food in our schools.”
Students said they want school lunches to be similar to the foods they eat at home. The Urban Core Collective works with districts that represent students from many different racial and ethnic backgrounds.
Wyoming High School junior Juliette Blle-Leon joined the collective’s efforts. Skipping lunch at school because of the appearance or lack of choice is a common occurrence, she said.
She often stays after school for musical rehearsals.
“When rehearsals go until almost midnight, I have to have food to keep me going throughout my day,” she said. “Some people are relying on the theater teachers to provide snacks because they don’t eat lunch.”
Brayden Mojét was the youngest student advocate. As a kindergartner in his first year of school at Grand Rapids Montessori, his mom, Denavvia, said the thing he was most excited about was eating in the cafeteria.
During public comment, Brayden was asked if he liked his school lunches. He replied, “Yeah, when my mom packs it for me.”