First Person

Heroes, villains hard to peg in 'Lunch Line' documentary

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
A poster from the movie "Lunch Line."

Say this for Chicago filmmakers Michael Graziano and Ernie Park: they have turned 60 years of dry, political history of the national school lunch program into an engaging and entertaining werewolves-versus-vampires cartoon/documentary, with no obvious good guys to root for or obvious bad guys to boo.

Graziano was in Denver Thursday night for a special screening of Lunch Line, the much-talked-about hour-long documentary released this summer that examines why it’s so hard to serve healthy food in our nation’s school lunchrooms.

Fittingly, the screening took place in the cafeteria at SOAR, the DPS charter school in Green Valley Ranch that serves mostly organic, locally-produced vegetarian meals to students, and bans sugary treats brought from home along with any beverage other than water or 100 percent fruit juice.

“It’s been screened around the country, and each time, a good dialogue gets started. At each screening people meet who never met before and they see they have common ground,” said Graziano. “I hope the take-away is that compromise is not a dirty word. There is common ground. If you show a film about global warming, there’s not much you can do about it afterward. But when you show a film about school lunches, it’s remarkable what a group of committed people can really do. You can make changes at the micro level.”

The film is often subtle – and sometimes not so subtle – political commentary on the politics of hunger and the politics of agriculture. But it started out to be something else altogether, Graziano said.

“We’re not food advocates,” he said. “We heard about this Organic Food Project in Chicago and thought it would be interesting to follow for a year. But as got into it, we realized it wasn’t yielding answers to the questions we were asking: Why is it so hard to do something so obvious? It’s obvious we should feed kids better food. But it’s not so obvious what the right thing to do is.”

So the film begins as documentary about some Chicago schoolchildren who win a contest for designing a low-cost, high-nutrition school lunch menu, and about the efforts of one Chicago school to serve better food, and how they get derailed because of budget cuts.

But to put this in context, the film gets creative. To tell the back story of how the national school lunch program came to be in 1946, and the political battles that have embroiled it to this day, Graziano and partner Parks borrow the vampires-versus-werewolves motif from the popular Twilight/NewMoon books and movies.

The liberal anti-hunger, progressive lawmakers are depicted as werewolves. Conservative legislators representing farm interests are drawn as vampires. The school lunch program benefits both, creating secure markets for farmers while ensuring schoolchildren are fed. But sometimes, a vampire’s “secure market” starts looking like a werewolf’s glut of cheap non-nutritious commodities dumped on innocent schoolchildren who need and deserve better. Yet at other times, the powerful vampirish U.S. Department of Agriculture has been the key to keeping the werewolves’ beloved school lunch program alive through wave after wave of Congressional cost-cutting.

“It’s not always so clear who the good guys and the bad guys are,” Graziano said. “We worked hard not to create heroes and villains. That’s a trope in documentaries today. But to do so would do a disservice to this issue. We’ve gotten nearly universal positive feedback because everybody can see their interests represented in this film.”

About 100 people turned out for the screening and post-screening panel discussion Thursday night. Among them was Ryan Galanaugh, community relations director for Metro CareRing, a large downtown Denver food pantry. He was there because he’s interested in eradicating hunger, and he has questions about how legislation to re-authorize the school lunch program might impact other anti-hunger programs.

“I enjoyed the movie,” he said. “It was very informative. Plus, I like vampires and werewolves. But I’d like to see some more practical steps, some more ideas about how I can get involved.”

Panelist Gabriel Gillaume, vice president with LiveWell Colorado, a non-profit organization that has launched a series of “culinary boot camps” for school food service workers across the state, said engaging parents will be key to ultimately making school food better. “I tell doctors to tell parents who ask what to do about childhood obesity to ask what’s going on in their children’s school and to demand better. Get involved in the discussion,” he said.

For now, the only way to see the film is to contact Graziano’s company, Uji Films, and arrange a private screening. But come January, it will go into much wider distribution, Graziano said. He particularly hopes that schools, education advocacy groups and health advocacy groups will show it.

For more info on the film click here. Or see a teaser.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.