Lunchroom Workers to New Haven Public Schools: “Let’s Cook!”

New Haven’s lunchroom workers have a long history of cooking for the city’s schoolchildren. Here’ workers prepare a special meal for Thanksgiving in 1982.

Today, New Haven Public School (NHPS) cafeteria workers—members of UNITE HERE Local 217—released a report that underscores the need to bring back fresh cooked food to our schools. Entitled “Healthy Kids First: Why cafeteria workers want to cook fresh meals in New Haven Public Schools,” the report is the result of extensive surveys of frontline cafeteria workers and argues that the only way to save New Haven’s declining food service program is for NHPS to make a commitment to fresh cooking.

Since 1995, the City of New Haven has rebuilt or renovated over 35 schools, many with excellent cooking facilities. Yet, just over a third of our public schools currently serve fresh cooked meals to students. Most schools are “satellite” kitchens, meaning that they receive food prepared at our Central Kitchen, which is “blast chilled” to a temperature just above freezing, then delivered cold. In a survey of 110 cafeteria workers conducted in February and March of 2013, 99% of workers say that in schools that have kitchens, kids should receive freshly cooked meals, and 87% percent believe that children prefer freshly cooked food.

The report calls on New Haven Public Schools put “Healthy Kids First,” by investing in workers’ potential. It argues that more students will choose to eat fresh cooked food, which will improve both their health and the fiscal viability of our school food program. Fresh cooking will also provide valuable professional training for workers. Betty Alford, who has 21 years of experience cooking in NHPS cafeterias explains, “I learned to cook fresh food as I came up in the system, food that kids and teachers wanted to eat. I want young women to have the opportunities I had. We need more cooks!”

Cafeteria workers stand ready to work with NHPS in implementing the changes that need to be made to repair a system in crisis. Their recommendations include a commitment from NHPS to avoid replacing cooked food with frozen food and to use the kitchens in our beautiful new schools for what they were intended: cooking, not just reheating food.

The City of New Haven began to invest in fresh cooking when it built kitchens in nearly every school. Now the Board of Education and the community of New Haven face a choice. Do they stop there, with kitchens, but no cooks? Or do they choose to move forward and take on the challenge of bringing fresh cooking back to our schools?  For New Haven lunchroom workers and parents, the choice is clear: Let’s Cook!


Read the full report, “Healthy Kids First: Why cafeteria workers want to cook fresh meals in New Haven Public Schools!”

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