Five Questions for: Chris Johnson

FoodService Director - Five Questions for: Chris JohnsonIn 2007, students at Sustina Valley High School in Alaska boycotted the school meal program. FSD talked with Chris Johnson, supervisor of nutrition services for the Mat-Su School District, about the boycott and what lessons have been learned.

What sparked the boycott?

The school burned down. They opened up a senior center right next door and put up some [temporary buildings] and they were feeding them out of the senior center. The facility was too small to support the school so a decision was made to send them packaged meals. We made the meals fresh in our central kitchen and shipped them up to them to ease the situation. They were reheated there.

The students rebelled because they didn’t have the same options the other schools did.

What did the students want?

The students got themselves pretty well organized and put out a press release. The foodservice supervisor at the time, Cindy Reilly, went up and met with the student body. They were requesting to change the nutritional content of school lunches, to remove “junk” food from the cafeteria, to provide freshly prepared, unprocessed food and to provide a variety of food options such as soup, salad and potato bars. They were very motivated. They didn’t want canned fruit. Fresh fruit in Alaska can be difficult. The school is 84 miles from our central kitchen so we can’t deliver them hot food every day. It’s just too far.

Nutrition services employees set up several meeting with them to talk about what their needs were and what could happen and what was not going to happen. The big concern was we had several families that wanted to prepare food at home and have it available to all the kids.

The students’ biggest concern was that they were paying the same price as other high schools and they felt that they weren’t getting the same things. The other high schoolers could purchase things à la carte. At this high school there was not an à la carte option because there was no oven space available. We had to figure out what we could serve these children in a timely, effective manor. We made a menu just for them.

What impact did the boycott have?

The boycott was Oct. 18, 2007. They wanted it to be longer but it was only one day. It was not a significant impact. There were less than 200 kids there at the time.

On the day of the boycott, two teachers actually approached the children in line for breakfast and told them that they needed to boycott. It was an interesting time.

What changes have been made since the boycott?

Since then, they’ve had a new school built and have the same service and choices as all the other high schools.

Following the boycott, we set up several meeting with the student body council to discuss what was needed. We made sure that we emphasized that it was their right to protest and say what they want to say but also to understand what we are doing and that we meet the federal guidelines and they are nutritionally balanced.

Once we went up and addressed their concerns, not many changes were made because of the limited facility that they were in.

What advice do you have for other directors who might be facing a boycott?

I think students today talk about boycotting more because we try to empower the students to address their rights and concerns. Students need to have a voice in what takes place and they need to be listened to. In order to facilitate a positive working relationship so that you have better buy-in with your menus, the more students you can have on a menu planning board the better.

Get the student involved. We are going to some of the culinary arts classes in the high schools and we are trying to be a part of the curriculum. We ask them to develop a menu item for the district. Then we take them to the central kitchen so they see the product from start to finish. By doing this we get more buy-in for our menus.