JESPA and Community Campaign Against Corporate Interests in Public Schools

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In the heart of Jefferson County’s schools, the Jeffco Education Support Professionals Association (JESPA) has been championing campaigns that illuminate corporate influence in our public schools. These campaigns, deeply rooted in the principles of fairness, equity, and the welfare of students and staff, aim to address critical issues like understaffing, fair wages, as well as push against an agenda to privatize essential services. At the forefront of this battle is the quest for healthy school meals for all, a cause that Chef Terence Proctor, a local elementary school kitchen manager and culinary expert, affectionately known by his students as Mr. T, passionately supports.

FNS Workers Want Better Food for Students, More Respect for Workers

Proctor’s experiences in the school cafeteria show that we are closer than ever to achieving healthier, more nutritious school meals. “From my experience in the kitchen, we’re right on the cusp of embracing scratch cooking,” he explains. “We’ve already made significant strides towards better quality food, offering more variety and preparing fresh fruits and vegetables daily.” This shift towards scratch cooking is not just about improving meal quality—it’s about improving school nutrition and the student experience by integrating locally sourced foods.

The dedication to enhancing meal quality through scratch cooking and locally sourced ingredients is evident in Chef T’s vision. “We’re practically there; we’re already engaging in the foundational practices of scratch cooking by chopping and preparing vegetables and serving fresh produce. We’ve seen substantial improvements, from diversifying our menu with a selection of foods and flavors from around the world to moving away from complete reliance on canned and packaged foods,” Chef T elaborates. His commitment to culinary excellence in school nutrition underscores the broader goals of JESPA’s campaign: to ensure that every student has access to fresh, flavorful, and nutritious meals.

Yet, the path to continuing to improve school meals faces obstacles, chiefly, understaffing and the need for enhanced kitchen training. “While our increased wages have helped, we need more staff in many of our kitchens. Preparing fresh food simply means we need to staff kitchens appropriately and have access to more effective training in time management and efficiency,” Chef T asserts. Moreover, the quest for quality extends to ingredient sourcing. “In terms of food quality, there’s still room for improvement, especially in sourcing high-quality, local ingredients for meats and other foods. The difference in quality between locally sourced items we receive and those mass-produced and shipped from far away is palpable in terms of flavor and quality.”

JESPA Members and Community Allies Unite

The collective efforts of JESPA members, parents, institutions and food justice advocates working tirelessly to transform school nutrition in Jeffco are to move us towards scratch cooking and can be achieved when a community unites for a common cause. By focusing on local sourcing and scratch cooking, JESPA members and allies aim to ensure that school meals are not only nutritious but also enjoyable for students.

“Our push is not just about healthy school meals; it’s about resisting the deprofessionalization of food service workers. It’s about treating our members as professionals and paying them appropriately. The narrative that food service workers should be low-wage workers because they simply open cans and reheat food has to be changed,” says Zander Kaschub, JESPA President. 

“We recognized that the push to link our pay to sales volumes, the chronic understaffing and reliance on temporary workers, and the significant decline in the budget allocated for food procurement, were all slippery slopes that could lead to a degradation of our profession and dignity of food service workers and other ESPs,” continued Kaschub. 

Similar trends have emerged in other education support professional jobs such as in transportation, where fewer drivers in Jeffco and cuts to bus routes open the door to the rideshare gig economy, where workers are paid as contractors instead of being trained to drive a bus and working for the school district. Linking pay to performance metrics can create undue stress and may undervalue the expertise and dedication of essential educators across various roles within the education system. Furthermore, tying pay to sales volume in a school cafeteria may prioritize profit-driven decisions over the nutritional needs and well-being of students.

Dissatisfaction with Working Conditions Led to the Demand for Change

Long-time food service professionals were dissatisfied and embarrassed about what they were serving to kids. A frequent narrative from food service workers was that they would not eat the food themselves. “Some of the items we serve are gross,” laughs Chef T.

Michelle Mapleback, a former kitchen manager of 20 years, reflects on the stark transformation of the school kitchen environment from a place of joy to one of stress.  She decided to retire due to the changes she saw. “The kitchen used to be a place where work was enjoyable; now, it’s filled with stress, and that’s truly sad. We’d shifted to subpar products, serving items that are blatantly low in quality. I remember telling my supervisor, ‘This is disgusting, how can you feed this to people?’  There was a time when we prepared homemade meals like spaghetti and fresh bread, which the kids absolutely adored. Achieving this was even possible with just a couple of dedicated staff, properly trained to deliver.”

Mapleback also faced working conditions that were difficult due to the revolving door of kitchen staff. “I was fortunate when I was learning, working with an experienced kitchen manager with sufficient staffing. Quality meals are definitely achievable with the right team, eager to provide good food.” The relentless need to train and oversee new staff or temps, working short staffed, and supervisors ignoring her issues pushed her to leave. At one point, working alone as a one-person kitchen, Mapleback had to serve prepackaged meals and limited variety.  “I was appalled at the food quality we were expected to serve. My supervisor, who was notably demeaning to women, didn’t care.” The culture of disrespect, she notes, was extensive: “There was widespread dissatisfaction with the department’s leadership. Kitchen staff are overworked and underpaid. Many of us who have left feel relieved.”

Another kitchen manager of 25 years, Kathy Grimes, takes deep pride in her work and is hoping to continue to make improvements. “What I enjoy the most all these years of working in school food service is working hard to put out a quality product that I know the kids will appreciate. It takes extra effort to batch cook and to arrange the fruits and vegetables in a way that is appetizing and inviting. But it makes my day when a kid says you make the best such and such or your such and such is so much better than my mom’s. The extra effort into making sure the food is fresh and hot when they get it is worth it.”

Grimes has led efforts to oppose the pay for sales that could lead to pay cuts if managers did not meet sales quotas and tied junk food into the quotas, and to fight for paid holidays for kitchen staff, and also filed a grievance that led to $30k in back pay for many managers when the department failed to pay the wages promised for increased meal volume.

Next, Grimes hopes to continue to see improvements, especially to staffing. “One of the problems we face is lack of time. We have a lot of issues in our kitchens due to short staffing, and the problems at the warehouse with staffing have affected our kitchens as well.  Getting our products delivered, the quality of our products and more, make it hard to manage our kitchens.  Our warehouse team is short staffed, too.”  Kathy has been invited to work with the administration and warehouse to come up with solutions. 

Concerns Remain – Corporate Interests Still Dominate

The Jeffco Food and Nutrition Services (FNS) department has made improvements in our school meals, but concerns about understaffing and use of ultra-processed and packaged junk foods persist. The involvement of Jeffco FNS in the School Nutrition Association can explain the resistance to ridding Jeffco of ultra-processed foods. Beth Wallace, recent former SNA president, no doubt has close relationships due to SNA’s “corporate industry patrons” who are allowed to join SNA. The FNS department is also paying membership dues to the SNA from their budget. The involvement of food and beverage corporations in the SNA can create potential conflicts of interest in Jeffco that might impact students’ nutrition.

These corporate interests pose several risks that compromise the quality and integrity of school meals. Corporations aiming to maximize profits promote more profitable products. The emphasis on processed and prepackaged foods diminishes the demand for fresh, locally sourced produce, undermining local agriculture and depriving students of diverse and nutritious food options. Additionally, corporate resistance to initiatives aimed at improving meal quality, such as scratch cooking or the inclusion of whole foods, can stifle efforts to enhance the nutritional value of school meals. The presence of corporate interests in our schools can skew educational content about nutrition towards their products, rather than providing unbiased, science-based information. Economic pressures from corporate partnerships offering financial incentives can compel schools to prioritize financial benefits over students’ health, limiting the ability to make decisions that genuinely prioritize the well-being and nutritional needs of students.

Privatization has Spread, Further threatening Public Education and ESP Professions

Parallel to the struggle in the cafeteria is the issue of school transportation privatization. The outsourcing of transportation services to private rideshare companies often leads to reduced service quality, diminished worker rights, and a loss of community connection. This trend is another facet of the encroaching corporate influence that JESPA is determined to combat.

These issues are not isolated concerns but are indicative of a larger trend towards privatization that threatens to undermine public education. From food service workers to bus drivers, and even to paraeducators who serve students with special needs, the push towards outsourcing affects all members of the school community. It’s a shift that impacts job security, service quality, and the overall educational experience of students. As essential services are outsourced to private companies, job security for education support professionals becomes uncertain, leading to potential disruptions in service continuity and the loss of experienced staff members. Additionally, outsourcing may prioritize cost-cutting measures over the quality of services provided, potentially compromising the standards of care and support received by students. This trend not only undermines the dedication and expertise of education support professionals but erodes the sense of community and belonging within the school environment. Privatized services are disconnected from Jeffco’s mission and values.

JESPA’s advocacy highlights the importance of collective action in resisting these trends. By standing together against the privatization of essential services, members highlight a commitment to protecting the values that underpin public education—accountability, transparency, equity, and community.  JESPA is uniting food service workers, transportation staff, educators, parents, students, and the wider community in a shared effort to safeguard the welfare of our students.

A Unified Stand for Public Education

JESPA’s advocacy highlights the importance of collective action in resisting privatization and corporate trends. By standing together against the privatization of essential services, the Union underscores a commitment to protecting the values that underpin public education—accountability, transparency, equity, and community. This fight unites our community in a shared effort to safeguard the welfare of our students and the integrity of our schools.

The campaign is a poignant reminder of the power of solidarity in the face of challenges that threaten the public good. It’s a call to action for all who care about public education to stand together in defense of a system that values the health, education, and well-being of students above profit margins for corporations or adding millions to Jeffco’s savings accounts off the backs of Jeffco’s most critical workers. Through this united front, we can ensure that our public schools remain places of growth, learning, and nourishment for all students.

Together, we can ensure that our public schools remain vibrant centers of learning, growth, and nourishment for all students.

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Jeffco Education Support Professionals ensure the safety, health, and success of all students.

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