Wisconsin districts seek solutions as school lunch quality comes under fire

Madison 365 article: https://bit.ly/3fpsZNY

By Erin Gretzinger, Wisconsin Watch – Sep 27, 2022

When Sadie Perez entered Indian Trail High School and Academy on a November morning, schoolwork was not on her mind. Instead, the then-junior was focused on an upcoming speech to the Kenosha School Board. She planned to bring a pressing concern to their next meeting — bad lunches.

Like the majority of schools in Wisconsin, the Kenosha Unified School District offered free meals to students during the 2021-22 academic year. But Perez and other students started to notice smaller portions, what appeared to be undercooked meat and fruit and vegetables covered with dark spots.

“The burgers that we had, the meat was really chewy and did not look cooked at all,” said Perez, who is now a senior. “Like they just threw it into a microwave and put two cold buns on it and hoped for the best.”

An Instagram account encouraged students to send in pictures of problematic food items, including gray patches on lunch meat and dirty vegetables, which were often posted with a #kusdfoodfails hashtag. A petition created by Indian Trail junior Katelyn Wilson garnered over 2,500 signatures…..

Students with Youth Empowered in the Struggle (YES) host a rally in March promoting demands to improve meals in the Milwaukee Public Schools. Supply chain disruptions caused by the pandemic coupled with other factors significantly changed what students saw on their plates — leading them to question the quality of food and prompting some Wisconsin schools to explore local food sourcing. (Joe Brusky / Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association)

“(For) a lot of people, this was their only source of food for the day,” Wilson said. “So we wanted to make sure that no matter what, people would be able to have access to healthier foods that they would actually be able to eat at school.”

Indian Trail High School students are not alone in their concerns. In the wake of supply chain and labor shortages that disrupted food service programs nationwide during the pandemic, news coverage of poor quality school meals exploded across Wisconsin and the country.

The disruptions shed light on the fragile procurement process behind school meals, prompting some Wisconsin school districts — and even the U.S. Department of Agriculture — to reconsider the streamlined national vendors that fuel school meals.

Doricela Herrera-Sanchez, a sophomore at Milwaukee School of Languages, said at a YES rally in March that she started bringing her own lunch because the school meals were not fresh. “I shouldn’t have to bring my own food every single day, having to worry about what I am consuming and the freshness and if it’s healthy for me,” Herrera-Sanchez says. (Joe Brusky / Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association)

Wisconsin students and families felt the impact of the product shortages, too — leading students in Kenosha and Milwaukee to organize to question the quality and quantity of food ending up on their plates. And already this school year, parents and staff in Madison schools have raised the alarm about low quality, which officials blame on lack of supplies and people to prepare the meals.

A report by the School Nutrition Association released in July predicts that supply chain disruptions will persist through the 2022-23 school year, contributing to decreased student participation in school meals as standards that were relaxed during the pandemic remain in place.

“It has been very challenging and exhausting, and I don’t think we’re at the end yet,” said Caitlin Harrison, the president of the association’s Wisconsin chapter. “I think it might even get a little bit worse before it gets better….” https://bit.ly/3fpsZNY

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