AFT launches School Meals for All campaign

Together with a local affiliate, the AFT on Nov. 18 kicked off an ambitious new campaign—School Meals for All—which aims to expand the federal school meals programs so that all children attending the nation’s public schools will have access to a free, tasty and nutritious breakfast and lunch every school day.

School garden at Kimball Elementary School

To that end, AFT President Randi Weingarten visited Kimball Elementary School, a Title I school in Washington, D.C., with a STEM focus and a booming school garden where the produce goes directly into a test kitchen, as well as providing the basis for lessons in math, science, reading, cooking and the arts. In fact, the tour included a big “reveal” of an indoor mural that beautifully illustrates the importance of school meals, regardless of income.

But the visit was far more than show-and-tell. Just like school transportation, facilities and supplies, our union believes that healthy food leads to healthy minds, academic success and a sturdy framework for public education itself.

That’s why Weingarten was joined by several guests, including Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), who firmly believe in the importance of universal school meals. As a former educator and principal, Bowman understands how food insecurity can stunt children’s growth and how a holistic approach to education helps all students succeed. A member of the House Education and Labor Committee, he supports School Meals for All legislation and is determined to work with his colleagues in the House and Senate to make it happen.

“Nationally, we feed over 30 million kids a day in school, and that’s without a universal meals program,” Weingarten told the group, adding that school meals, like books and school gardens, help children thrive. “Our push for school meals for all is important, and it’s just as important to push for healthy school meals for all.”

Preparing meals at Kimball Elementary School

Washington Teachers’ Union President Jackie Pogue Lyons, together with WTU treasurer and steward Nadia Torney, led guests on a morning tour that began with two student ambassadors providing a quick turn around the school building and a visit to the FoodPrints cooking classroom, where the adults joined fifth-graders in making sweet potato quesadillas with veggies straight from the school garden.

FreshFarm FoodPrints is a nonprofit group working with teachers that integrates gardening, cooking and nutrition education into the curriculum. These educators teach hands-on lessons that get students excited about growing, cooking and eating food. In addition to the STEM subjects, this culinary program links kids to learning in history and social justice.

Next, the group visited the school garden and helped the fifth-graders harvest sweet potatoes.

“Watching these students … digging for sweet potatoes, and then preparing the potatoes and vegetables for quesadillas as they were about to cook, was awesome,” Weingarten said. “This course combines science, math and reading, and was such fun. It’s the promise and potential of public education.”

The art of cooking

Then it was on to the school cafeteria, where a School Meals for All mural was unveiled, along with student and professional art on the topic of universal meals. The national School Meals for All campaign includes other beautiful school murals and student artwork from AFT affiliates in West Virginia and New Mexico.

Mural at Kimball Elementary School

The school tour and the big reveal ended with a presentation of new backpacks and school supplies from AFT partner First Book, as well as a check for $1,000 to the school to use on the First Book Marketplace.

“You look at this school, the openness, its programs,” Weingarten said. “This is the kind of place where kids are thriving because of the amazing commitment of the adults” in their lives. It’s the kind of place, she said, where parents want to send their children and educators want to work.

WTU President Pogue Lyons expressed pride in our union’s leadership in highlighting the need for every student in every corner of the United States to have equal access to school meals. She noted that hungry students do need our help and that all kids deserve access to food.

Likewise, Principal Eric Dabney, himself a trained chef who understands the connection between food and learning, voiced pride in Kimball Elementary for its ambitious garden-to-table program.

The goal: Happy and healthy

Weingarten said that at this moment, as we try to pull free of the COVID-19 pandemic, this is what she wants every child in America to focus on: Being happy to be back in school with friends and teachers. Learning new things. Having fun. Conversely, she never wants any child to worry about having enough to eat.

Student at Kimball Elementary School

It seems so simple—we learn better when we’re not hungry, Weingarten added. Our bodies and our minds do better when we have the right fuel. And she commended our members and partners in School Meals for All for committing to this new campaign to make sure that students are well nourished.

“This is what we do as educators this year,” she said. “You can see eyes sparkling, even with masks on. That’s what we’re going for this year. You walked into that classroom and you would not know that these kids have just had two years of disruption. That’s your commitment. That’s your work.”

[Annette Licitra / Pamela Wolfe photos]