Posted on Wed, October 07, 2009 by Jerusha Klemperer
1 Comments | Categories: Food Justice, News, Current Events, Policy, School Food, Youth Food Movement,
by Jessica Weiland, Time for Lunch campaign Intern
One thing we have learned on the Time for Lunch campaign trail is that giving people a sense of their power has an incredible effectBehold! What things are achieved when you feel like you possess the ability to achieve them! No one has experienced the triumph that comes with empowerment like the Rethinkers, a student-formed, student-organized, student-run, student-everything activist group in New Orleans. I came across this group while researching examples of successful school lunch programs and thought that they were a shining example to reinforce this valuable power lesson weve learned and are continuing to explore.
The Rethinkers formed in mid-June 2006, in the wake of the Hurricane Katrina destruction that left New Orleans schools a wreck. They took this rebuilding period as an opportunity to rethink some fundamental issues in their school districts. Since their formation, they have tackled Goliath-sized issues —from inadequate, waterlogged libraries to unwarranted security measures to bathroom deficiencies. Now, in the groups third summer, they are taking on school cafeterias and lunches.
Not surprisingly, these students have a lot on their plate. They started by single-handedly nixing the once omni-present spork that was a symbol of the slop-consistency food the cafeteria served for lunch. Now they are working to replace styrofoam trays with real plates and utensils. They have designed a 21st century green cafeteria kitchen (with a water conserving dishwasher and an actual kitchen), have interviewed over 500 students at nine different schools to more accurately gauge their needs and concerns, and have developed a video game called The Ultimate Lunch Tray so that younger children can have fun with learning how to eat healthy.
Better, healthy, tasty food for every student is high on the Rethinkers agenda. One student said, Like, we have all this really good, local, fresh shrimp that is right at their doorstep and instead they are getting cloned shrimp from China. We are trying to put local food into school system. They have collaborated with chefs, farmers, architects, and artists to create 12 Recommendations for Public School Cafeterias that effectively link New Orleans students values with related problems and specific calls to action. The recommendations were presented to teachers, family, peers, the New Orleans Public Schools superintendent, Paul Vallas, and local and national newspaper, magazine, and television reporters. Paul Vallas commented that he agreed with recommendations the Rethinkers presented and was going to work with the school board to make them happen. He described the Rethinkers positive approach to change as polite yet persistent.
What I found most striking when reading up on this group was not only their capacity to make change, but also the soaring confidence levels and leadership development that took place as they fought for their student rights. After watching videos of their raps about change, haiku poems about New Orleans, and skits starring vegetables and fruit, I realized that what made these students powerful was not that they were hurricane victims but that they had become leaders and change experts. Prior to reading about the Rethinkers group, it hadnt occurred to me that by engaging kids in the Time For Lunch campaign, we were actually helping to foster budding leadership skills. Everyone knows that pictures of kids are effective marketing tools —who can resist cheeks full of barbecue sauce? but it is easy to overlook how the act of getting involved in a campaign that benefits kids actually helps students grow emotionally. The Rethinkers have shown me how incredible this growth is can be how the discovery of ones ability to make a difference is not only self-rewarding, its wildly contagious, too. Empowering people is good organizing.