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Lunch Ladies Protest Chicago Public Schools Food, Release Report Detailing Deficiencies

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Members and supporters of UNITE HERE Local 1 at Tuesday's demonstration.
Members and supporters of UNITE HERE Local 1 at Tuesday's demonstration.

A union representing 3,200 lunchroom cafeteria workers in Chicago Public Schools staged a demonstration Tuesday night, where advocates and self-described "lunch ladies" voiced their concerns about recent changes to Chicago school menus.

The report released Tuesday, titled "Feeding Chicago's Kids The Food They Deserve," surveyed 436 CPS lunchroom workers to get their input on district-wide initiatives to provide healthier cafeteria options. Over the last two years, CPS has been instituting sweeping and sometimes extreme changes to encourage students to eat healthily. But the workers who dish out the food--and see what students leave behind--say much of the "healthy" food is left uneaten.

The report was submitted to the Chicago Board of Education Wednesday, the same day First Lady Michelle Obama announced new nutrition standards for public schools across the country.

According to the report, 50 percent of workers say they rarely or never see school principals eating their new cafeteria options, and 58 percent don't feel students are eating it, either. Fewer than half of lunch room workers felt they could report concerns about food quality or safety without risking their job security, and 75 percent said they had not had a chance to provide any input on the new menu at all.

One of the union's most pressing concerns is the spike in frozen food that has accompanied the menu changes. They say students aren't eating the bland, frozen food, which many said they would season or prepare differently to incentivize healthy eating. And as CPS prepares for sweeping overhauls including large-scale construction and facility improvement projects, workers worry that working kitchens will be replaced by stripped-down facilities that emphasize re-heating over cooking.

"How can we make real food if you take away the real kitchens?" one worker told the Chicago Tribune at the demonstration.

Workers also requested nutrition education they can pass on to students--62 percent said they were eager for more training.

One self-identified "lunch lady" told the Tribune that hummus was often ignored at her school, in spite of its nutritional value, because kids unfamiliar with the chickpea-based spread would avoid it. She said she wished she knew enough about her menu items to help direct students towards healthier choices.

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