School Food and Student Activism in Brooklyn

Recently, I participated in a Brooklyn Movement Center teach-in on food co-ops and ran into Christine Johnson-Alexander, the brilliant student government president at Boys and Girls High.

We had a chance to catch up on the students’ school food work, which I was pretty anxious to hear.  Young people, the development of their analysis and their voices are critical. To the best of my ability, I’m committed to supporting their voices and work as much as possible.

So when they invited me to their meeting with DOE (Department of Education) school food staff a few months ago, I didn’t hesitate to make the time to hear their concerns and support their work.

Prior to this meeting, they had been working diligently on identifying their priority areas for student government and also working with Brooklyn District Public Health Offices to create a wellness council.

Coming to the meeting, I could tell their engagement around school food and their fellow student concerns was clear.  One of the most glaring concerns was low participation in school breakfast, lunch and afterschool programs.

The students reported 6% participation in school breakfast and clearly were concerned about the health and well-being of their student counterparts.  The students had some very real concerns and presented some very insightful solutions.

Breakfast tray from student submitted via Student Government powerpoint presentation.

Student Concerns:

Low school food participation– as mentioned earlier, the students presented their concerns about the low school food participation rates (especially breakfast) and suggested Grab n’ Go options, considering breakfast in the classroom, improving presentation, temperature and freshness of the food and more culturally relevant food options.

Taste and quality of meals– the students suggested that much of the food tasted “artificial” and tasteless and asked if real products are used (or can be) such as cheese and eggs.

Lack of culturally relevant food– the students presented the fact that many of the students were Caribbean and that culturally relevant food options might appeal to more students to increase uptake of meals.

Freshness and variety of the salad bar- one student who has lunch during the last period asked if the salad bar can be refreshed for the students eating lunch during the later period.  We found out during the meeting that the salad bar is supposed to be refreshed after every period so that every student should receive a fresh salad bar option.

The students also recalled the “Make your own sandwich bar” and asked if this would be a possibility of reinstating.  The students were told they were supposed to be having more than just the peanut butter and jelly they were receiving.  They were entitled to cold cut sandwiches, as well.

Local and regional procurement of food and procuring from farmers of color– the students wanted to know where their produce was being sourced and if there was a way to source from local farmers and farmers of color.

We were told in the meeting that procurement is public and that the farmer had to supply the entire school district in order to be considered as a source.

This raised major concerns for those of us interested in directing school procurement funds towards more regional economic investment (via local farms) and those of us concerned with racial and economic equity in our food system.

Positive Results…

The meeting ended with school staff promising to follow up with the students.  I was therefore anxious to here the results.  Catching up with Christine, I discovered there was a great improvement to the meals, to my surprise.

“The food has improved so much.  It has so much more flavor, the presentation is different… It just looks more like food, unlike what we were getting before.”

One thing remained a very pressing concern for Christine, however— the food in the YABC (Young Adult Borough Centers) afterschool program.  “We think there should be hot meals.  At least not frozen or cold.”

Apparently all of the meals are served cold and the students were told “since it was the first meal of the day for these students, they had to be cold.”  Christine is clear there is much more work to be done around school food and these YABC meals is next on their agenda to improve.

I’m very proud of these students.  They were clear on studying the problems- as well as the solutions—and fighting to achieve what they know is right: that every student deserves a quality, identifiable, culturally relevant, sustainably sourced good meal.

We can learn a lot from the focus for which these students are fighting.


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  1. Dear Dara,
    Thank you for this post, I appreciated the information you provided from the students at Boys and Girls High School. Too often we hear about the negative effects of students not taking advantage of school food programs, how test scores are too low and overall learning is low because students are not getting the nutrition they need. It was enlightening to see what the students really think about the food that is being served during the day. The concerns of the students having to do with the source of the food served at the school, the quality and temperature of the food showed that they were knowledgeable about what healthy nutritious food should look and taste like. It is amazing when youth are able to get organized and show that they have a voice. The fact that the students asked questions about these programs and got responses and results is truly inspiring. They found out that a lot of their concerns were details within the programs that they were already entitled to and that would not have been possible without them taking initiative.

    Recently I have been working on projects centered around healthy retail in supermarkets and also around youth engagement and empowerment. What happened at Boys and Girls High School is a perfect example of youth engagement and empowerment within the school community. Currently I am working with the Partnership for a Healthier Brooklyn on their Healthy Retail in supermarkets campaign and these are the types of initiatives we want to instill into the community to take a stand in the food that is being provided for them. To be healthy in today’s world is to be informed and the only way to truly become knowledgeable is to raise your voice.

    Lauren Loor is a Public Health Major expected to graduate in May with her Masters at Long Island University Brooklyn Campus. She is currently interning with the Partnership for a Healthier Brooklyn through the Directors of Health Education and Promotion.

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