Why UEPI stands with striking LAUSD teachers and students

What does the teachers’ strike have to do with kids’ health? Everything

UEPI has been dedicated to advocating for healthy food in the school system for over 20 years, organizing a parent coalition to ban soda from school, pioneering locally-sourced salad bar programs, and writing the first Harvest of the Month curriculum for pre-schoolers. Currently, we are working with school administrators, teachers, and parents to ensure that schools meet their wellness goals, include nutrition and gardens in school activities, and support families’ ability to provide nutritious meals to their kids outside of school.

Teachers strike in front of Latona Ave Elementary School in Northeast LA

Today, we stand firmly in support of the teachers’ strike. Why? Because teachers are the cornerstone of critical support systems for LA families. Schools are not just classrooms where children learn their RRRs: schools are health providers, food providers, resource directories, and centers of social connectedness.

Our biggest area of involvement in schools is of course food. A little understood program, the school lunch, breakfast, and supper program (yes, there is school supper, and yes, it’s called supper) enable children to eat up to three nutritionally balanced meals in school every day. While the idea of children eating 3 institutional meals instead of homemade food may sound depressing, the reality is that this takes an enormous burden off of low-income families (over 500,000 of the roughly 600,000 students in LAUSD qualify for free or reduced-price meals). For the most vulnerable families (such as the estimated 17,000+ students who were homeless as of 2017), school food may be the only nutritious meals these children get. LAUSD operates the nation’s largest school breakfast program, offering free breakfast to every child in its 900+ school sites–regardless of income qualification–inside their classroom during the first hour of the school day. This guaranteed free meal makes a huge impact on child nutrition, especially as households with undocumented family members become more hesitant to apply for federal assistance programs, which include school lunch. Universal free breakfast, as well as the increasing number of schools offering universal free lunch, are a boon for families unable or afraid to participate in federal assistance.  The school meal system (including food costs, equipment, kitchens, as well as labor, both cafeteria workers and managerial staff) is funded almost entirely by the United States Department of Agriculture, which administers the school lunch, breakfast, and other meal programs, under authorization from the recently approved Farm Bill. Cafeteria staff are not represented by UTLA, and are not currently on strike. Minus some chaos and logistical limitations caused by the strike, students attending school during the strike should be able to access the same meals as they do during a normal school day.

In addition to food, the school system is also a vital link to health services. The inadequate number of school nurses is one of the primary issues at stake in the teacher’s strike, and it should be, since for parents that are underinsured, underemployed, or new immigrants simply unfamiliar with the US healthcare system, their child’s school becomes the first stop for accessing healthcare resources and information. At the District level, LAUSD operates a referral and health coordination system that links families to resources for Medi-Cal, oral health, asthma, vision, and mental health services. The District operates 15 Wellness Centers offering health services, and also hosts several other publicly accessible clinics operated by outside health agencies at several high schools. The reach of these programs is inadequate for the 700,000 students and their families in the District, yet the infrastructure exists for schools to be an important part of healthcare delivery for LA communities.

Parents help sort tomatoes for a Harvest of the Month taste test

Perhaps most notably, at the school level, many schools have become the social safety net for their parents. Most schools operate a Parent Center: a room designated specifically for parent activities. Depending on how Principals allocate their budgets, schools can hire parents part-time to coordinate their parent centers, allowing them to offer adult education classes such as ESL, computing, exercise, and nutrition (such as the nutrition classes that UEPI offers to our partner schools in Northeast LA). Schools with particularly engaged Parent Center Coordinators might have parents hanging out in their Parent Centers all day, operating as informal community centers where parents come to get help filling out paperwork, organizing a walking club, sharing parenting advice, and trading recipes. For our programs at UEPI, we’ve worked with Parent Centers to organize parents to help with our Harvest of the Month nutrition education program. The Harvest of the Month is a curriculum for teachers to give their students and monthly taste test of a new fruit or vegetable along with a nutrition lesson. With the added work of sorting, chopping, and serving the produce, it’s not a realistic program for teachers to take on on their own. Our team of parent volunteers has stepped in to do the prep work, delivering the samples each week to their kids’ classrooms. These same teams of engaged parents have also turned out this week in support of teachers protests, offering picket line support as well as volunteer child supervision.

This type of parent-teacher support only happens at schools that function as a healthy ecosystem. These schools have strong leadership and support from teachers,   their principals, systems to welcome parents onto the school campus, and support staff,cafeteria workers and others whofeel supported and valued for what they do. Schools like this operate on the assumption that they are not there to merely to educate, but to serve as pillars in their community.

Parents from Nightingale Middle School strike with Northeast LA teachers at Sycamore Park

In addition to achieving better conditions for teachers, the strike can serve to highlight the importance of schools in our communities and bring attention to the need to prioritize schools across all of their functions. Support for teachers is at the crux of school function, but the school system as a whole needs more support, from food to health to parent engagement. Today and for the remainder of the strike we will be supporting our teachers, our parents, and our students in the spirit of strengthening our schools on all levels for all children. For us at Oxy, LAUSD and public schools are also the vital pipeline for future student body at Oxy and future student leaders in higher education.

To support our teachers and all of their supporters (sympathy strikers and parent volunteers alike), we are coordinating and delivering healthy snacks to picket lines and recreation centers in Northeast LA. As the strike goes on with continued disruptions to school meal schedules and lack of paychecks for teachers, there will be a need for further critical food assistance. In the meantime, if you would like to contribute healthy snacks (uncut fresh fruit, granola bars, nuts, etc.), or funds for lunches to schools and recreation centers in NELA please drop off donations to UEP 1541 Campus Rd. If you are in a position to donate shelf stable food, snacks, or beverages, please contact UTLA’s food drive coordinator, Garrick Ruiz at fooddrive@utla.net or by phone at (213) 400-7756.

UEPI Health Educator Raquel Galarza distributes tangerines for teachers at Sycamore Park.

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