UNITE HERE rally emphasizes student safety staff and fresh meals

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

by Sonia Giebel

Days after the School Reform Commission approved its “doomsday” budget, about 150 people conducted a noisy protest Wednesday outside District headquarters against two of the budget’s consequences: the removal of noontime aides from lunchrooms and less fresh food for students.

The UNITE HERE rally brought together the aides — also called student safety staff — who monitor trouble-prone hallways and lunchrooms, with students, teachers, cafeteria workers, and others. They chanted slogans like “break bread, not schools” and banged pots and pans.

“What parent wants their kid eating on a dirty table … or coming home with a busted nose?” said Migdalia Lopez, a noontime aide at Bodine High School. The cafeteria will not be a safe environment, she said.

The bare-bones budget would cut nearly all school personnel except teachers, principals, school police, some nurses, and maintenance and cafeteria staff. All 1,200 noontime aides will be gone. The cafeteria workers don’t know how many of them may be laid off due to school closings. The District has declined to meet with the union leadership.

UNITE HERE is a bargaining unit made up of nearly 2,000 cooks, food-service workers, and student safety staff. The rally emphasized the importance of community within schools and linked fresh, high-quality foods to increased safety. Various organizations, including Youth United for Change and the Philadelphia Student Union, came to show their support..

“We are fighting for each other right now,” said Juanita Jones, a lead service worker at Olney Elementary and a speaker at the rally.

Student safety

UNITE HERE conducted an independent survey of District employees; 40 percent of those surveyed reported witnessing a violent incident where there were not enough staff present during the lunch hour.

“There isn’t enough staff as is. It’s going to be chaos,” Lopez said.

Parents and students stressed the genuine relationships between students and student safety staff, who are an integral part of the community.

“It’s easier to build relationships with student safety staff, not police officers,” said Andre Dunbar, a Philadelphia Student Union student organizer.

These relationships, ralliers noted, ensure safety within schools. The aides, they said, are often parents and neighborhood stalwarts who understand social dynamics and can often prevent disputes before they arise. Further, students are more comfortable approaching student safety staff with safety concerns than school police officers.

“Police make school feel like a prison,” Dunbar said.

Fresh school lunches

Many school lunches now come from minimally equipped satellite kitchens, designed to prepare frozen and pre-packaged or pre-plated meals. UNITE HERE members want the District to convert satellite kitchens into full-service kitchens, capable of preparing fresh food.

In its report on the survey, Inside the Lunchroom, UNITE HERE notes the numerous health benefits of full-service kitchens, where fresh food is served and staff can teach students about healthy eating.

“If we teach our kids to eat right, they will,” said Jones. In the report, she also noted the strong community value of allowing staff to cook fresh meals for students, rather than handing them a packaged meal.

Cheyenne Williams, an 11th grader at Kensington Urban Education Academy and part of YUC, noted that school lunches are “food for thought” and that better quality food would be tied to less disruption and subsequent suspensions in school.

Sonia Giebel is an intern at the Notebook.