How New Orleans Food Culture Shaped My View of School Lunches

Voices | Student Engagement

How New Orleans Food Culture Shaped My View of School Lunches

Despite the rich history of the city's cuisine, katie writes, her students pay the price during lunch.

By katie wills evans     Jul 14, 2023

How New Orleans Food Culture Shaped My View of School Lunches

This story was published by a Voices of Change fellow. Learn more about the fellowship here.

I teach in New Orleans, a city known for its food scene. Like everything else you love about New Orleans, our cuisine only exists because of Black people. From gumbo to grillades, crawfish boils to creole red gravy, New Orleans food is a melange of recipes passed down from generation to generation of Black, Creole and Indigenous people to create one of the only distinctive styles of cuisines of American origin. When my class wrote a book last year about artifacts of New Orleans culture and what they mean to them, a third of the class wrote about food. In every class I’ve taught over the last 12 years, cooking comes up repeatedly when I ask about my students’ goals, skills, dreams and little-known facts.

Despite inheriting this culinary and cultural legacy, my students find themselves in a tough position during the school day for breakfast and lunch. Between the grease, carcinogenic packaging of fast food options nearby, and the tasteless and culturally irrelevant food options shipped into our cafeteria by a national corporation, our students don’t seem to have any good or healthy food options.

In my afternoon classes, the post-lunch drop in energy is palpable and there is a noticeable difference in the number of students who have little to no energy by 2:10 pm when our last class starts. Students I teach in the morning one semester show up more engaged and productive than when I have them in the afternoon. I know that students skipping lunch or consuming foods high in carbs and sugar contribute to this downward trend in class engagement.

This contentious relationship between New Orleans students and school lunch wasn’t always the case. Sitting around classic round tables with attached stools, I listen to my fellow teachers who are New Orleans natives reminisce about how much they miss lunch from their high school days. Red beans and rice and seafood gumbo stand in stark relief to the unseasoned, room-temperature sweet potato fries we’re looking at now.

Very few educators and students spending their days in America’s public schools have affordable access and protected time to eat good, healthy food. New Orleans students know plenty about good food, so why do so many choose fast food or skip school lunch entirely? To quote the California Federation of Teachers, “Our teachers’ working conditions are our students’ learning conditions.” As adults facing similar options for our nutrition, how can we support our young people in making the best decisions they can for their well-being and engagement?

A Food Desert on the Outskirts of a Food Mecca

On the block I drive down to get to school each morning, I pass a KFC, Taco Bell, Wendy’s and Mcdonald's. Next to the school is Papa John’s, brightly lit and plastered with specials and deals next to giant food photos; this is New Orleans East. Over 80% of the residents of my school neighborhood are Black and almost half of households here have children under 18 years old. When I pull up to the school parking lot, the scenery changes. Fruits, vegetables and flowers grow in our school’s food forest. A student-created mural behind the forest declares, “Fresh Food is Liberation.” Arguably what one would consider a food desert, the juxtaposition is stark, and the tension between these two overlapping contexts where my students live and make decisions is substantial.

Our nutrition coordinator does her best to provide us with good and healthy lunches each day, but her skilled hands are tied by USDA regulations and the supplies our contracted food provider sends each week. Revised a few years into my teaching career, USDA guidance emphasizes decreasing the consumption of fats and increasing the consumption of whole grains, despite these principles being largely devoid of solid evidence and counter to the recipes of much of the food New Orleanians know and love. These mandates align more closely with the lobbying priorities of corporate farms than medical advice. With these restrictions being so specific and tied to precious federal funds, most charter schools in New Orleans contract out food decisions to national companies like the one my school uses. These companies claim to provide healthy and “culturally relevant” food, but what ends up on our students’ plates feels far from those descriptions.

Where trays of chicken and macaroni and cheese baked by New Orleans elders used to be, there are now sit pans of homogenous food delivered to our school and hundreds of others across the country. By March of this year, there were no New Orleans cuisine options on the monthly menu, instead replaced by menu options like “Chicken Nuggets & Dinner Roll,” “Cheese Pizza,” and “Hot Dog.” All children deserve meals that nourish them and bring them joy – for New Orleans children, this is their birthright. Instead, they receive plastic containers filled with checked boxes and USDA mandates. Are we willing to accept that across this incredibly wealthy country, our children are offered meals that none of us would choose for ourselves?

More Than a Student Problem

To be fair, I’m not judging my students’ lunch decisions. Sometimes, I’m in line behind them to get school lunch and other times, I’m standing next to them waiting for my order of McNuggets. I grew up in central Pennsylvania. In the summer, when my siblings and I were young and my parents were trying to get a financial foothold, we would pull up to a local public school for a free lunch most days. I have vivid memories of dry chicken nuggets, wet green beans and two percent milk on styrofoam plates and red plastic trays. Unfortunately, not much changed in the decade I spent eating school lunches as a student after that. This model of taking what I could get became how I fed myself throughout college. I picked what I could afford from a fluorescently lit food court, ate alone between classes and trips to the library, and gave nutrition little thought.

When I became a teacher, my eating habits got even worse. I often skipped lunch entirely and ate the fastest thing I could find after work, stomach growling and head banging. Fellow teachers occasionally commented on my greasy bag of chips and microwavable frozen food die. Still, as a stressed-out, new teacher with a low salary, I didn’t have the money, time or energy to do better. Genetics and metabolism combined such that I was within a weight range that medical doctors deemed “appropriate” according to the debunked and fatphobic body mass index. Still, I didn’t feel good. I developed a chronic illness and knew I needed to care for my body better.

For years, I’ve known changing my diet might help, but so much of the dietary research available is misleading and affordable options are scarce. Like my students, I found myself in a difficult position, often defaulting to what was easy and tasted good. I wasn’t sure what to do about it, but, like other difficult realities that face our students, the best thing we can do about unequal access to high-quality, culturally relevant, healthy foods is to provide space for them to learn and talk about it and let them make their own decisions.

Setting the Table with History and Context

In my senior-level English class, we spent the semester reading, watching and listening to various sources focused on the human body and its relationship to society. In the final unit, we read and discussed an excerpt from Kiese Laymon’s modern classic memoir “Heavy,” in which he masterfully discusses his relationship to his weight and health and how both were impacted by white supremacy and his family’s ability to access certain foods. The conversations and reflections are rich and nuanced, leaving us surprised our time is up when the class ends.

This year, much of the research I’ve done to improve my health and write this piece has made its way into the curriculum for consideration alongside a variety of perspectives about trauma and stress, which contribute to rates of heart disease in ways that are as important – and maybe even more important – than diet and other cardiac risk factors.

I’m hopeful that combining these readings, discussions and other classroom activities will allow students to discuss their diet and health in a space with adults who love them, but I want more than that. By identifying the impact of capitalism, white supremacy and fatphobia on our diets, our class provides the broader context for my students to take a role in a discourse that is about more than what goes on a plate during any given school lunch break.

New Orleans children are descendants of culinary geniuses and the future ancestors of future cooks and consumers. By consistently spending our class time examining and dreaming ways out from under these systems in ways that are relevant to our daily lives, my students feel supported in making sense of the world around them and deciding how they want to see it change on their plates and in their worlds – now and for generations to follow.

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