Community effort brings school meals back in-house

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The wasteful and demeaning practice of outsourcing food service is ending in Oklahoma City, thanks to a concerted campaign by the Oklahoma City Federation of Classified Employees and its many community partners.

After a three-year experiment, the city’s school board this spring decided to return to “cooking kitchens” at its more than 75 school sites. Private contractor Chartwells had centralized operations and gutted the responsibilities of food service workers, directing them merely to heat and serve prepackaged meals. The practice not only was demeaning to workers but also wasteful, as a hefty percentage of the district’s 42,000 preK-12 students tended to dump this factory food straight into the garbage.

How did the union turn the situation around? For 15 years, classified school employees have been active in the Central Oklahoma City Community Forum, a group of local leaders who meet every month and decide which neighborhood initiatives or political candidates they will support.

The coalition didn’t need much prodding on this issue. It surveyed each school about what kids were eating (or not eating) and reported to the school board. Then coalition members began searching for solutions.

“They’re all intelligent people,” says David Gray, president of the union and an AFT vice president, who has written about how union members are community members in American Educator. “You just lay a plan out and leave them alone. They’ll figure it out. We let our coalition members do their thing.”

One of their things was to help elect dietitian Laura Massenat to the school board several years ago. Right away, she began pressing the school district and Chartwells to supply more nutritious food, such as fresh fruit instead of canned.

Another one of their things was to get parents in on the act. Coalition members fanned out across the city, asking parents, citizens’ groups and congregations: “Don’t you think our kids should eat better than this?”

Eventually, Massenat and the community forum persuaded the school board to let on-site food service workers go back to their own cooking.

As to the workers, they are psyched to be doing their real jobs again. “Their morale is already boosted,” Gray says. [Annette Licitra]

August 1, 2013