On Feb. 1, New York middle school students were scheduled to be served cheesesteaks, broccoli and fruit for lunch, according to a school letter. However, the meal changed on the first day of Black History Month to chicken, waffles and watermelon.
“The situation at that middle school was our mistake and never should have happened,” an Aramark spokeswoman said in a statement. “It stands in direct contrast to who we are as a company and our longstanding commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. We have apologized for our mistake, are working to determine how it happened and make sure it never happens again.”
Aramark, based in Philadelphia, has been accused of other instances of racial insensitivity.
In February 2018, Aramark served a meal at New York University in honor of Black History Month. That included barbecue ribs, cornbread, collard greens, Kool-Aid and watermelon-flavored water, the New York Times reported. Aramark said it fired the employees who planned the meal without consulting the school’s staff. The next year, NYU ended its contract with Aramark, according to the student paper.
When students at the University of California at Irvine were served chicken and waffles on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2011, Aramark said its managers and chefs would complete cultural sensitivity training, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Johnson, Nyack Middle School’s principal, said the similar meal served to his students last week “reflected a lack of understanding of our district’s vision to address racial bias.”
“We are extremely disappointed by this regrettable situation,” Johnson wrote, “and apologize to the entire Nyack community for the cultural insensitivity displayed by our food service provider.”
Since the Jim Crow era, watermelons have been used as a racist trope. After emancipation, Black people grew and sold watermelons, and they came to symbolize their self-sufficiency and freedom, according to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. White Southerners responded by using the symbol to belittle Black people, a museum article states.
Fried chicken has also been used to mock Black Americans, stemming from enslaved people’s knowledge of the common yet sacred farm animal in West Africa, The Washington Post has reported. Marcia Chatelain, a history and African American studies professor at Georgetown University, wrote in 2019 that while “some argue that enslaved people perfected the techniques to make it,” fried chicken has “often been used as a prop in popular culture to degrade black people.”
Honore Santiago, a student at Nyack, told WABC she was confused last week when food workers asked whether she wanted watermelon, an item she said is rarely served in the winter. The meal made students feel bad, Santiago told the station, “especially the kids that are my color.”
In a statement, Aramark said its employees will undergo training on stereotypes and biases. A spokeswoman did not respond to a question about whether any employees have been disciplined.
“We serve millions of meals every day and our team does an excellent job meeting the needs of the communities we serve,” Aramark said in a statement. “But, in this case, we made an inexcusable mistake and we apologize.”