Activist Chicago Public School Teacher Leads Students on School Lunch Revolt

Jasmine Castillo/The School Lunch Program
Jasmine Castillo/The School Lunch Program

Led by an activist, left-wing teacher, high school students at Chicago’s Roosevelt public high school recently engaged in a boycott aimed at changing the way school lunches are made and delivered to kids in the Chicago public school system.

The kids in teacher Tim Meegan’s civics class have banded together to improve the free lunches given to all Chicago Public Schools (CPS) students and say they have had enough of the unappetizing lunches given to them in their Albany Park neighborhood school.

According to an NPR report, one student named May recently insisted, “We hope to achieve fresher food, healthier food, a larger portion, food that we can actually eat.”

Meegan’s class created a website called The School Lunch Project that features photos of a few of the unacceptable lunches as well as calls to boycott the Roosevelt cafeteria. They also have a little-used Instagram page.

In one entry on the website, the students decry the “privatization” of the school lunch program after the service company Aramark was given the $3.15 million CPS school lunch contract, something the kids apparently feel is a travesty.

Today lunch is produced by Aramark, a multi-million dollar corporation that provides food service, uniforms, and janitorial services to institutions like schools, hospitals, ballparks, and prisons. But it didn’t used to be that way.

Before privatization of lunch, our school cafeteria served the community at large and turned a profit for the school. We learned that Aramark is a company with a laundry list of corruption and scandals a mile long. They may not know how to keep us happy, but they certainly keep their investors happy.

This pro-union, anti-private business message is backed by the students’ teacher, Tim Meegan.

This teacher is a well-known anti-capitalist activist. He is pro-union and was recently a losing outsider candidate for Chicago Alderman.

An example of the activism in which this teacher is known to engage can be seen in a public address he gave in downtown Chicago in 2013 at an anti-ALEC protest march sponsored by a coalition of Chicago unions.

During his screed, Meegan attacked the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which was having its yearly meeting in the Windy City that day. He went even further than merely denouncing the legislative policies ALEC supports and ended up actually calling for “violent revolution,” denounced free markets and capitalism as an “impediment to democracy,” and demanded that the government “redistribute the wealth.”

Indeed, even as the teacher and his class wound up their attack on Aramark and the school lunch program, the company reported that not once did any of them ever reach out to the company for any discussions of the issue.

While denying that the lunches her company serves are inedible and unhealthy, Karen Cutler, a vice president of communications at Aramark, also hoped that at some point the kids would trying to contact her over the issue.

“We would welcome the chance to meet with the students and their teacher to hear from them directly and to explain how school lunch works under the USDA program,” Cutler told The Chicago Tribune. “We’re confident that we can resolve any issue by everyone listening and talking to one another constructively and look forward to that opportunity.”

But, also according to the Tribune, teacher Meegan said he “didn’t see a point” in contacting the company and instead wanted to stir up the Chicago Public Schools. Meegan said that going through “normal channels means a lot of talk” and was, to his mind, a waste of time. So, he suggested that the kids forget trying to talk to the company and immediately launch a boycott.

The whole situation stems from changes in the federal school lunch rules imposed on the nation’s schools by Michelle Obama. With the new nutritional requirements, paperwork, and costs imposed on the schools by the federal program, the Chicago Schools decided to make all lunches free.

There were several reasons for the decision, many of them time and cost savers. With past programs, for instance, kids would be given cheaper lunch rates if their families met certain income level requirements. But this meant an avalanche of paperwork and even office time as parents had to fill out forms attesting to their income level, and CPS office workers then had to verify that income claim. This was an ongoing paperwork cycle that would be expensive to fulfill in the long run.

Then there was the “stigma” that CPS officials feared, as kids received their cut-rate lunches in front of the other kids.

With the decision to give everyone a free lunch, the CPS officials imagined that they’d be making the program cheaper, freeing it of that “stigma,” and finally that all kids would be fed. But reality intruded, at least on the latter thought, because after the free lunch program was initiated, the number of meals given out actually decreased—and by quite a lot.

According to Chicago’s WBEZ radio, during the first year of the free lunch program, the number of lunches served decreased by almost a million lunches. In the second year, the number fell again by up to 800,000 units. Enrollment in CPS also declined during this period, but the falling number of school lunches outstripped the decline in enrollment.

In any case, the kids at Roosevelt did hold their in-school boycott to great success. But when they then tried to push their cause out to the whole of the Chicago public school system, they were met with more indifference than they had hoped.

Still, CPS officials did meet with Meegan’s Roosevelt class. CPS promised to investigate the kids’ claims and to take action if they are substantiated.

Whatever the outcome, teacher Meegan said that he felt that the boycott was a good thing and that the exercise taught activism to kids.

“I think it’s especially important for young people in Chicago—where we see so much corruption, cronyism, and nepotism—that they learn how to make change within large organizations,” Meegan said during an interview with WBEZ radio. “This is just one of many diverse tactics that we are trying to teach young people so they are fully equipped to participate as citizens in a democratic society.”

Follow Warner Todd Huston on Twitter @warnerthuston, or email the author at


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