Hundreds of students walked out of Dallas’ Justin F. Kimball High School in late March, in protest of being served what they described as “undercooked or moldy” food. The walk-out was announced on an Instagram page created by two students, which documents nine weeks of questionable food — mold found on bologna sandwiches and what looked to be a moldy/discolored orange.
One of the student organizers, Itzel Vera, started a change.org petition titled “Make school lunches edible.”
“For most students, this is their only meal of the day,” Vera wrote.
School lunch is provided free of charge to all Dallas ISD students, a decision the board made in 2013 because of the high percentage of students considered “economically disadvantaged.” The district’s food and child nutrition web page notes that each meal “meets or exceeds the requirements set forth by the US Department of Agriculture and the Texas Department of Agriculture,” and USDA guidelines state that a balanced meal for students includes vegetables, fruits, low/fat-free milk, grains and proteins.
Yet Kimball, in South Oak Cliff, is one of several schools across the district where complaints have emerged this year around the quality of food being served.
Cases of moldy and discolored food also were reported at Geneva Heights Elementary in East Dallas. Geneva Heights parent Randall Bryant also started a petition imploring Dallas ISD to “stop serving moldy food!” after three separate incidents at his daughter’s school in a little over a month. She first discovered mold on her breakfast pancakes in late March, then mold on a muffin and strange-looking cereal in May. District 7 Dallas City Councilman Adam Bazaldua, also a Geneva Heights parent, reposted Bryant’s complaints on his Facebook page and aired his own frustrations.
“My wife and I are thankful to be able to send our daughter to school with her own food,” Bazaldua wrote, “but as a former DISD educator, I know that there are many students who rely on these meals as their only option.”
Bazaldua also went and looked at the cafeteria kitchen himself when picking his daughter up from school on May 5th. In a Facebook post, he explained that he found that there was unsanitary food storage, with an inconsistency in temperature recordings and what Bazaldua described as, “bad temperatures,” being shown in “real-time,” as well. He referred to the conditions as a case of “blatant negligence.”
At L.G. Pinkston High School in West Dallas, students in the new journalism club spent the semester asking questions and reporting on school lunches, which they identified as a campus problem in need of solutions. They even toured the school cafeteria to see how the kitchen worked and looked firsthand.
The cafeteria workers went over protocols for storing and keeping food, and the students saw fresh fruits and vegetables waiting to be prepared for lunches. But based on dates they saw on a few of the food storage boxes, and on bad lunch experiences of their own, students still questioned the practices.
“They took us to the freezers and stuff, and they were telling us how the food comes at a certain time and how long they can keep the food, but some of the food that they were saying, the day that we went, it was past expired already” Dy’on Reynolds says.
Journalism club members left voicemails with West Dallas Trustees Joe Carreon and Maxie Johnson at their DISD offices, inviting them to lunch and to visit with club members about food issues. Neither trustee responded.
“I’ll just say that DISD, they need to work on their food choices. They need to work on a lot of stuff that they feed us,” Aniya Burkins says. “They always wonder why they always have extras and stuff, but nobody wants to eat it when they know what you [DISD] do with it.”
Several years ago, in 2015, Dallas ISD rolled out a number of new initiatives to improve food quality and options on its campuses. They introduced grab-and-go “Smart Boxes” with items such as “hummus, sandwiches, bistro salad samplers and wraps.” All packaging was plant-based/compostable and made of 50% recyclable materials, and they even featured menu items from Texas farms and a “Lean & Green Day,” encouraging students to replace meat with plant-based protein options one day a week.
A 2017 article on Dallas ISD’s news platform, “The Hub,” unveiled new menu items such as chicken and waffles, cheesy oven-baked pasta and apple crisp. As recently as 2019, the food and nutrition services department hosted its annual food fest with students from three schools trying menu items from 14 vendors, including “berry banana bread, sweet potato sticks, miso ramen, Korean BBQ and jambalaya.”
The pandemic halted those efforts. By 2020, the district was no longer touting food options and instead trying to determine how to feed children, period. TIME magazine featured Dallas ISD cafeteria workers on their cover in April 2020 as essential workers and heroes on the front lines, making sure hundreds of thousands of hungry children received meals on a weekly basis, even with schools closed.
Though DISD schools have been open since October 2020, still featured on DISD’s food and nutrition services home page is a YouTube video explaining supply chain issues, which DISD spokeswoman Robyn Harris says are the reason certain menu items aren’t available and that “we’re having to rely on some of those pre-packaged meals in a larger capacity than we had pre-pandemic.”
Harris says the district has ensured that issues reported at Kimball and Geneva Heights were isolated incidents. The two students from Kimball who created the Instagram page were invited to tour DISD facilities, and were invited in May to be a part of DISD’s menu selection process, she says.
At Geneva Heights, the menu items immediately were pulled and an investigation is underway, Harris says, though she dismissed the cereal complaint as nothing more than a cluster of “crystallized cinnamon.”
Bryant says the response he has received from DISD so far has been “unacceptable.” He says he attempted to work directly with DISD’s board of trustees to open up an investigation into the district’s food services, but “very little was gained from that interaction.”
Bryant also is frustrated with Michael Rosenberg, DISD’s executive director of food and child nutrition services, who “attempted to address these concerns as two isolated incidents.” When Geneva Heights hosted a school meeting in May with food services on the agenda, Rosenberg “did not even show up, and tried to communicate to an auditorium filled with parents via a cell phone.”
School lunches historically have been unpopular among students. Even a 2017 DISD Hub article announcing new menu items noted that “for as long as most people can remember, it’s been cool to hate the food served in school cafeterias.” In that same piece, however, Rosenberg “acknowledged that things needed to change,” and told DISD high school students that the district’s goal is to “provide quality food and customer service that makes students look forward to their meals at school.”
At the last DISD Board meeting of the spring semester, Randall Bryant’s daughter Sofia stepped up to the mic and told trustees that issues with food at Geneva Heights Elementary were not new, and had in fact been taking place for a number of years.
“The food at this school has affected so many kids both physically and mentally,” she said. “There has been mold in the food many times. When we give the food back, they just say it won’t happen again, but it keeps on happening over and over again.”
Her father followed, repeating her concern that sanitation issues were not isolated incidents, but rather a larger problem throughout the district with storage.
“We need an audit of all of the schools to see what is going on,” Bryant told trustees. “We need the equipment being fully inspected. And we need some acknowledgment from you all. As my grandmother would say, ‘hit dogs always holler.’”
He showed the trustees apples given to him by a teacher from Frederick Douglass Elementary, another Dallas ISD school.
“These were given to me tonight — mushed up apples. We cannot continue to give these,” Bryant continued. “As my daughter stated, this is affecting our students.”