Where is the love?
9/16/2021, 6 p.m.
“Reopen With Love 2.0” was the mantra being espoused by Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras as thousands of students returned to the classroom last week for in-person learning for the first time since March 2020 and the onset of the pandemic.
But many students weren’t feeling the love when lunchtime rolled around, and packages of mystery meat on a bun and other questionable contents were distributed under the guise of lunch.
Youngsters, whose actions often speak louder than words, discarded the pre-packaged mess, leading to reports of trash cans overflowing with the inedible meals.
Parents also have questioned what’s in the packages, with one parent bringing several uneaten lunches to Monday’s School Board meeting for “show and tell” during the public comment period. School Board members and the RPS administration apparently were clueless about what the winner of RPS’ multimillion-dollar food service contract was giving out for students to eat.
School Board member Kenya Gibson actually apologized to a parent for voting to award the $12 million contract to Preferred Meals, An Elior Company.
It seems like RPS can’t win. Even as the city starts the new school year with three new school buildings, what is being served to students is — in a word — shabby.
The pre-packaged meals are not the hot, made-from-scratch or fresh ingredients typically associated with school cafeterias. According to parents, some of the lunches come in microwaveable containers that are taken back to classrooms, heated and then — supposedly — consumed. The meals, the parents said, also lack the quality and healthy calories needed by growing children and teens as outlined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
If nothing else, the pandemic has shown the importance—and benefits—of free school meals to students in boosting learning and providing nutrition for those who may not otherwise have the food they need at home. A lack of food or lack of quality food has an impact on students’ health, academic performance and behavior, according to the experts. And in high-poverty school systems like Richmond, school-supplied breakfast and lunch can be a lifeline for children, particularly for the many families who are experiencing food insecurity.
Still, having the mystery meals tossed by students still makes for hungry children. Several parents have reported that the pre-packaged food is so terrible that they have flaunted school rules and packed lunches for their children to take to school. Unfortunately, that’s not a solution for everyone.
Students don’t need junk food filled with empty calories. They don’t need reheated processed fatty food to bring on obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Nor do they need expensive, five-star gourmet dishes. What they need is solid, fresh, healthy and identifiable food.
RPS’ food problem certainly demands innovation and flexibility on the part of Mr. Kamras, the School Board and the school administration to come up with positive solutions. We ask that the school system look into partnering with local fresh food sources and producers, possibly even local restaurants, to get students on an even and healthy start nutritionally until school cafeterias can be up and running again.
A cafeteria staffing shortage, pandemic-inspired shortage of ingredients and/or increased costs associated with virus precautions are no reasons to shortchange students on their nutritional needs.
A workable solution can be found.