To believe this story about Benjamin Franklin School in East Harlem, you must engage, at least for a time, in a "willing suspension of disbelief." Otherwise, you may find it difficult to understand how in two years an improved school lunch program could turn a school, described as one of the worst in the city, into a model for other urban schools.
In 1977, the New York City board of education was prepared to close the East Harlem high school because attendance was less than 50 percent. Dope was used and traded openly in the halls. It was unsafe to walk in the corridors.
Today, 1,200 to 1,400 of the 1,800 or 1,900 students are in class each day and almost 1,000 of them eat the school lunch. Most of the credit for this miraculous turn around goes to Eugene (Gene) Brown, assistant principal in charge of the special lunch program, the Energy Factor, and almost every extra-curricular activity in which the school participates.
The Energy Factory, which features low fat, low salt, low sugar versions of fast foods and fast food service instead of a cafeteria line, is the concept around which Brown has rallied the students. It wasn't conceived for that purpose: it was an effort to get more kids to eat the school lunch.
But Brown has made it much more than that. From the beginning he involved the students, "not necessarily the best kids," in the planning of the Energy Factory: the refurbishing of the cafeteria; the food to be served; the policing of the area during lunch time. "The kids are harder on each other than the guards we used to have," Brown said. "They were having a discussion about what they would do if someone broke the rules. 'Throw him out,' someone suggested. 'Nah. That's just what they want,"' another wisely noted.
Two years ago when the Energy Factory committee was discussing whether or not they should have a salad bar in the cafeteria, one of the black students said: "That's for The Man, not for Niggers. We's spit in it." You are unlikely to hear any of the committee members, 60 percent of whom are black, 40 percent of whom are Hispanic, denigrate himself that way now.
What Brown is teaching to his committee of 90 students is pride, self confidence and self esteem.
Today he says the "president of the Energy Factory is probably bigger than the president of the Student Council."
What has happened, according to Brown, who is also a social worker, is that the kids "feel they are part of the structure. They talk to us."
Lorraine Chambers, supervisor of the cafeteria, who came to Benjamin Franklin before the Energy Factory was instituted, sees a big difference. "Before our staff was not tuned in to the students' needs. The students disliked the employees quite a bit. Now we have a lot of neighborhood people working here and that relationship has made a lot of difference. We have to care about these kids."
And pay attention to what they like to eat, a lot of which does not fit the stereotypes.
One of their favorite dishes is baked fish. They also eat beets, love spinach salads, ask for broccoli with cheese and won't eat hot dogs. And Brown is convinced the kids don't really like French fries; they like catsup.
One thing both Brown and Chambers say the kids won't eat is hamburgers on whole wheat buns. "Whole wheat and hamburgers don't go together," Brown says.
According to Brown when they took the vending machine out, none of the kids objected, only the teachers.
Brown thinks so highly of the food now, and with good reason, that he says "If you can't find what you want to eat in this cafeteria, then you didn't want to eat." He says waste is at a minimum, "maybe 4 percent."
On the whole the kids are pleased with the food, though they would like desserts. They would also like more salad to be served so there will be enough for those who come to late lunch. "It's much better than we used to get, and better than other schools" said one, while another compared it to a fast food restaurant.
But the Energy Factory concept alone might have failed if it hadn't been directed by Brown who talks the kids' language but commands their respect. He also cooks for their parties, sewed all the costumes for the cheerleaders and is available to them seven days a week.
As he tours the cafeteria with a visitor, he doesn't miss a trick: "I know you love me, but go to class," he tells one loiterer.
"Sit on the chair," he tells another who is perched on a table.
When he conducts a class in nutrition education the students are expected to be quite -- "Excuse me ladies and gentlemen. If we all talk we won't get anything done" -- and they are.But his classes in nutrition education, like his Energy Factory committee meetings, include a lot of things that have nothing to do with nutrition. Brown is developing ethical standards and leadership.
And he's doing it with firmness and love. "If you care about kids, love kids and have patience, it will work," he says.