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A wave of student activism on food issues

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Walk into a school cafeteria, and chances are it looks much the same as it did generations ago: students putting food on their trays and approaching the long tables to sit down.

The food might be somewhat more healthy, the result of federal policy, but student attitudes don’t seem to change much. They’re always dissatisfied.

Some students are taking matters into their own hands and, in a wave of activism, have become energized about food and wellness, bringing change to the humdrum food routines.

Northeast: Wellness for breakfast

“We looked around our cafeteria and decided we needed to do something different,” said Jennica Nugent, an 11th grader at Northeast High School.

After surveying Northeast’s cafeteria two years ago, Nugent and her peers in the Wellness Club focused on a dusty, unused corner. Today, this is the bustling “Wellness Corner.”

“Try the oatmeal. I promise it’s good,” Nugent yelled out to the students as they joined the line for breakfast at the Wellness Corner.

A long, steel L-shaped counter filled the northeast corner of the cafeteria, and a banner with the words “Welcome to the Wellness Corner” hung on the wall. Yogurt and fruit parfaits covered the counter, and small Kashi and Cheerios cereal boxes, milk, and bowls of fresh fruit sat on the periphery.

Behind the bar stood a team of eight students, all clad in red and black aprons with matching caps. Their arms moved swiftly, adding strawberries and yogurt to cups. Five minutes were left before the 7:46 a.m. first-period bell, and the line of hungry students grew longer.

This was the first day that the Wellness Corner served oatmeal.

“It’s below freezing outside, so instead of just having cold options, I wanted them to have something warm in their stomachs to start the day off right,” said Nugent, co-president of the Wellness Club. “Plus, it’s healthy for them!”

Since its inception in the fall of 2014, the Wellness Corner has become the cafeteria’s mecca at breakfast time, and it is completely student-operated.

“They serve about 175 students a day, and the most students we’ve had in one morning is about 245,” said Marc Michaels, a physical education teacher at Northeast and the Wellness Club’s adviser.

The Wellness Club’s overall purpose is to promote health among the student body, and in weekly meetings, members convene to develop ideas about how to make changes around the school. The club is part of a citywide youth leadership program run by The Food Trust and called HYPE (Healthy You. Positive Energy).

To get the Wellness Corner started, students first identified a problem.

“We noticed that students weren’t really eating the breakfast that was served. The sandwiches sometimes don’t even look edible, with hard or wet bread, and the pancakes are often soggy,” said Anna Okropiridze, a junior and co-president of the club.

She added, “If students aren’t eating breakfast in the morning, they are unprepared for the day. And I know a lot of my peers may not be getting full meals at home.”

One in four residents in Philadelphia lives in poverty, and the rate is more than one in three for children. Children make up about 40 percent of food stamp recipients in Pennsylvania.

Wanting to change these numbers, Nugent applied for a grant through AdVenture Capital under the GENYOUth Foundation and was one of just seven students nationwide to be awarded about $3,000 to buy supplies for the Wellness Corner.

Michaels, the teacher, was awarded about $5,000 through Fuel Up to Play 60, a national in-school nutrition and physical activity program launched by the National Dairy Council and the National Football League. Students used the money to purchase supplies such as a sandwich heater, hot water heater, and food storage trays.

“We had a vision and knew we wanted to give students more options, because breakfast is important,” Nugent said.

For compliance with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s School Breakfast Program, the Wellness Corner’s menu must follow nutrition guidelines. It varies each day. Fruit smoothies and oatmeal are served on select days. Fruit and granola parfaits, cereal, milk, fresh fruit, nutrition bars, and graham crackers appear every day.

Some students show up as early as 6:40 every morning to set the corner up and stay after the first-period bell to clean up and properly store all items.

They are confident that more students are eating as a result of their work.

“I think what we’re doing is important because oftentimes students don’t interact with the people behind the cafeteria counters,” said Okropiridze. “But we are students as well, and when they see our faces and that this is student-centered, they feel more comfortable. They’re more willing to come forward.”

And they are doing their best to make all students comfortable. While a bright sign that said “Kosher,” on the walls in the corner made some students feel comfortable, it raised new concerns for others.

Last year, Muslim students approached the corner and asked whether there was gelatin in the yogurt. To make sure they were meeting the needs of all students, the Wellness Club did research and corresponded with the District’s Division of Food Services to make sure the yogurt they served was both kosher and halal.

“This was a learning process for us and for all students,” said Nugent. “We want to include everyone. I don’t want to disrespect anyone’s religion or culture.”

The Wellness Club hopes to expand its options at Wellness Corner and in other food- and health-related initiatives around Northeast. The club already has set up a greenhouse at the school and hopes to get more students to grow fruits and vegetables there.

But even with what they have now, club members hope to increase the number of students who show up.

“Northeast has about 3,000 students,” said Nugent. “About 500 make it to breakfast on average each day. That in itself is a problem, and that’s something we are working on.”

Central: Wellness through water

Harvey Finkle
Students at Central High School have also mobilized to improve student well-being – though not directly through food.

Two cohorts of students in Central’s AP/IB Environmental Science class decided that something needed to be done about the school’s water fountains.

“We have about 20 water fountains throughout the school building, but students in the course noticed that no one was using them,” said Galeet Cohen, an environmental science teacher at Central and adviser to the school’s Recycling Club.

Students in the club also noticed that a lot of the school’s waste was from water bottles that students purchased from vending machines in the cafeteria.

For their annual Do Something! projects, at the end of the year after exams are over, students in the class were tasked with moving beyond a presentation of ideas or fundraising for outside groups to produce something tangible themselves that would make a difference.

“We first decided to purchase [reusable] water bottles as a way to get students to reduce their waste,” said Jada Parris, a senior at Central. This idea built upon the work of students in the preceding 2013-14 school year.

With a donation from the school store and parents and alumni of Central, Parris and her classmates developed a sturdier $8 water bottle that improved upon the ones that the previous class had designed.

The students then recognized that it would take more to get their peers to drink from the water fountains.

“To take our project a step further, we created a GoFundMe page to raise money for water filtration stations,” said Parris. Students raised about $1,200 through this online fundraising page, enough for one bottle-filling station from Cope-Wardell-Ammon Associates Inc.

When they called to order the station, the company was so pleased to hear from students in the District that they decided to donate the first station free of charge.

Now three bottle-filling stations, better known to Central students as “hydration stations,” are strategically placed throughout the building.

“No one trusts the school fountains. There are no indicators to let students know that it is safe to drink [from them],” said Cohen, the teacher.

The bottle-filling stations, first unveiled in 2014, look like the fountains of the future. When students place a water bottle beneath the fountain’s nozzle, water automatically begins to flow.

According to students, the most useful feature is the stations’ filtration component.

“The stations filter the water, and each contains a light that lets us know the status of the filter,” said Teena Simon, a senior at Central involved with the implementation of the stations. The light moves from green, to yellow, to red. At red, the filter must be changed.

“We constantly get emails from students when the light goes yellow. They’re concerned about the status of the water they drink,” said Cohen.

The hydration stations have turned into hot spots, explained Parris. School clubs place advertisements for events on the wall around them. Students in the graphic design class collaborated with those leading the project to design posters to share facts about water consumption. And students in the biology class designed 3-D water molecules out of paper that hang from the ceiling above the station in the cafeteria.

Students line up to get clean, free water. Some fill their friends’ bottles, too.

“We couldn’t have done this without the help and support of the Central community,” said Simon.

Above the first-floor station, a placard states: “Dedicated to members of [Central class] 274 who identified a challenge and decided to do something about it.”

And the student movement for clean, free water is not stopping there.

“Our goal was to get one hydration station, but now we have three. We will continue to advocate for more,” said Parris. “And I’m optimistic that all of the school’s water fountains will be hydration stations when I come back and visit as an alumna.”

Activism around the District

Students have also taken on citywide advocacy.

From 2012 through 2014, student activists from Youth United for Change pressed the School District to partner with a lunch vendor that would provide healthier and more appealing meals. Though the District was unable to change vendors, students’ call to action helped restore and reopen full-service kitchens across schools in the city.

And individual students like Lacretia Jefferson, a junior at Parkway Center City, teach youth around the city about gardening and farming. Jefferson is a student leader with the nonprofit organization Greener Partners, which works to increase local access to fresh food.

Cohen, the Central environmental science teacher, said that projects like the push for hydration stations “introduced this idea that we can change our school’s infrastructure. It’s now a test space for change. And the students are excited that they’ve been able to impact other schools in the District.” Other schools have called them to get advice on installing hydration stations and water filters in their own schools.

Being the change they wish to see is at the core of these student movements, and the District is taking notes.

“We are trying to figure out how to use our limited resources to hear from as many students as possible,” said Amy Virus, manager of administrative and support services in the District’s Division of Food Services.

She added, “We want to know about their cafeteria experiences and want to hear from them as much as possible.”

Food Services has put out an electronic survey for students to provide feedback and is involving more students in taste tests for potential additions and changes to the menu.

Said Virus: “We believe students should have input in these decisions.”

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