Over a dozen public school cafeteria workers served up a petition to the mayor Friday in a push to save their jobs, and keep New Haven school children fed, during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
Around 15 New Haven Public Schools food service employees delivered that message to Mayor Justin Elicker during a brief rally held on the front steps of City Hall.
The demonstration came just a few days after the school system announced that it will be using currently idled school buses to deliver meals to homebound students between now and when hybrid, in-person schooling begins on Nov. 9 (see more below).
The lunch ladies present—all of whom are members of UNITE HERE Local 217—said they are part-time, hourly workers whose employment is directly tied to federal reimbursements the city school system receives through the National School Lunch Program. The school system currently employs 156 such cafeteria workers, according to a union representative.
They told the mayor that the shift to all-remote school for the last few months of the spring semester and the first 10 weeks of the fall school year, and the associated shift from in-person meal service to bagged breakfast and lunch pick-up, has caused the number of meals distributed each day to plummet from a pre-pandemic average of 15,000 to roughly 2,500.
That number is worrisome for two very big reasons, said Troup School cafeteria worker and 18-year public school veteran Robin Jones (pictured at right).
For one, fewer city kids are getting free meals from the school system every day, meaning that some are almost certainly going hungry.
And two, fewer meals distributed each day means the city will get a smaller reimbursement from the federal government through the school lunch program. That in turn means that cafeteria workers’ jobs may be in jeopardy.
“Our kids are our jobs and our family,” Jones said. “We’ve got to make sure our kids are fed.”
“This is my calling,” she added about her work preparing meals in New Haven Public Schools for the past nearly two decades, including during the pandemic. “I love my job.”
“I first just want to say thank you for the work that you have done” during the pandemic, and beforehand, often for years and years, to keep New Haven school children fed, said Elicker.
He said he could not promise that no school cafeteria workers will ever be laid off during the pandemic. But he did commit to working with the Board of Education, the New Haven Public Schools administration, and the cafeteria workers themselves to increase the availability and distribution of food through the school system.
“I know that there many, many, many people in New Haven who need food right now,” the mayor said. “And the last thing we want to do is lay people off.”
Elicker said, and the cafeteria workers present celebrated, that the school system plans to use school buses to deliver meals to children for the next two weeks of all-remote learning.
“It’s a blessing. It’s truly a blessing,” said Doretta Bowman (pictured in center), a seven-year veteran cafeteria worker who currently serves at East Rock Community Magnet School.
Bowman said that the city should try to send out as many school buses with meals as it can, because, based on the conversations she has with families when they come by pick up breakfast and lunch to-go everyday, people are going hungry throughout the city.
“What happens to the buses on Nov. 9?” asked Angie Monack (pictured at left), a 22-year school cafeteria veteran who currently works at New Haven Academy. “How can they go out if they’re busing kids to school? Is there a plan that maybe they could do it after they take the kids home?”
Elicker said he did not have an answer right then about what the school meal busing plan is once hybrid learning begins Nov. 9. He promised to look into it, and noted that roughly 44 percent of school students plan to continue with remote education even when the hybrid option becomes available. So there will still be a great need to make sure kids who are not coming to school in person every day get fed.
Christine Saffioti (pictured), who also works in East Rock School’s cafeteria and has been with the school system for 18 years, said that if she or any of her colleagues are laid off, they can’t collect unemployment because they’re part time and because of their union contract. “Where does that leave us?” she asked.
“That’s why we’re so scared,” added Monack. “We’re here to ask you to support us in keeping us working. We all have to pay our bills.”
Regina Byrd, a 21-year schools veteran who currently works at Co-Op, and Latasha Vereen, a 12-year veteran who works at John C. Daniels School (both pictured), stressed that they’ve continued coming to work, making meals, and doing their part to keep their school kids fed even as classes have moved entirely online.
“None of us complain, because we love our jobs,” Byrd said.
Her favorite part about her work, after over two decades on the job? “Being able to cook and feed the children.”
See below for a flyer about the school meal busing program, and click here for a list of school meal pick-up locations during the school week.