A New York middle school has apologized after students were served fried chicken, watermelon and waffles for lunch on Feb. 1 to mark the beginning of Black History Month.
In a letter sent to the parents of students at Nyack Middle School, principal David Johnson called the lunch special “inexcusably insensitive,” as the foods reference offensive racist stereotypes of Black people.
Johnson wrote in the letter, obtained by The Washington Post, that the lunch choice “reflected a lack of understanding of our district’s vision to address racial bias.”
He blamed the school’s food vendor, Aramark, for serving the meal.
On the school’s official lunch schedule, students were supposed to receive a Philly cheesesteak, broccoli and fresh fruit for lunch on Feb. 1. It is unclear why the menu was changed.
Aramark apologized for the lunch in a statement.
“The situation at that middle school was our mistake and never should have happened,” the company wrote. “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.”
The company claimed its employees will undergo training on stereotypes and biases.
“We serve millions of meals every day and our team does an excellent job meeting the needs of the communities we serve,” Aramark wrote. “But, in this case, we made an inexcusable mistake and we apologize.”
One student at Nyack Middle School, Honore Santiago, told local news station ABC-7 that he was “confused” when the lunch staff asked students if they wanted watermelon “because it’s not in season.”
Santiago said the lunch made students feel bad, “especially the kids my colour.”
This was not the first time Aramark has been accused of serving insensitive meals in schools. In 2018, the company served students at another school in New York watermelon-flavoured water to mark Black History Month. Earlier in 2011, the company caused controversy by serving fried chicken and waffles at the University of California on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Watermelon became a racist trope associated with Black people when slaves were emancipated after the American Civil War. In order to make money, former slaves often sold fruits and vegetables, including watermelon.
The fruit, which had become a symbol of freedom, was later used by those who supported slavery to mock Black people.
Fried chicken also became a racist trope used to ridicule African Americans, as it was a very common dish eaten by slaves. Since slaves were not allowed to own other farm animals, chicken was an essential part of their diet.
Aramark operates in a multitude of locations across Canada as well as the U.S.