Fifth-Grade Students Lead Food Campaign for Multicultural Lunch Options in Urban School

The biggest impact of our project was that students created change on a larger scale than they thought was possible. My students wanted to be heard in the world outside of this classroom. After the project they said, “What’s the next big thing that we are going to try to change?”

Erin Budreau, Fifth-grade Teacher, Findley Elementary School, Des Moines, IA

Findley Elementary School in Des Moines, Iowa, is a diverse school with a traditional school menu. The typical lunch options of chicken nuggets and pizza didn’t fit the cultural preferences of some Findley students, many of whom had immigrated from Spanish-speaking countries, as well as Sudan, Burma, and other countries from around the world. As the school is 100% free-and-reduced meals, many of the students didn’t have the socioeconomic means to bring their own lunch if they didn’t like what was being served.

When fifth-grade teacher Erin Budreau challenged her students to write a proposal for something they wanted to change in the school, the lunch menu was at the top of the class’s list. Budreau was teaching Iowa core standard SS.5.11 for civics and government, which is: “Explain the processes people use to change rules and laws in the classroom, school, government, and/or society.” Instead of taking a typical teacher-centered approach—as is common practice in many classrooms—Budreau wanted her students to have an active role and collaborate with their peers on deeper learning. Budreau says:

We didn’t want to just teach them about the branches of the government and then have them watch a Schoolhouse Rock video, which is often what teaching that standard looks like. We were trying to think of how we could make this real for our students, how could we engage them at a different level than doing a worksheet.

“We were trying to think of how we could make this real for our students, how could we engage them at a different level than doing a worksheet.”

Budreau asked students to brainstorm ideas for school-level changes individually, and then the whole class voted on the five ideas that resonated with them the most. Then students worked in academic teams with each team collaboratively writing a proposal around one of the top-voted ideas. Budreau saw her students taking one other’s perspectives as they analyzed their thinking through the task. “When students shared their reasoning behind their ideas, they were very open to listening to each other,” she says.

Instead of simply filing away the finished proposals in a student evidence folder, Budreau challenged students to take the assignment further. The class moved their proposals through steps similar to what a real bill would go through. The school lunch bill made it to Findley’s leadership team staff, which acted as Congress. The leadership team voted to move the lunch bill forward to Findley’s principal, Ms. Adams, who then took the proposal up to Des Moines Public School district’s nutrition department. The district was surprised and delighted by the students’ initiative and suggested bringing a panel of district representatives to hear the students’ arguments and ideas. The panel included the head of North Side schools (Findley’s area), a representative from the district’s nutrition department, and Findley’s head chef.

Budreau’s students read their proposal to the panel at an assembly in the school’s cafeteria. “Our opinion is that we should have more diversity when it comes to our school food,” the students wrote. Budreau says:

The students explained some of their concerns, like the lack of vegetarian options (we had a few vegetarians in our classroom) and not enough choices or cultural diversity in the food—they wanted some seasoning and flavors, because everything can be very bland. They also considered the health factor—they felt like there wasn’t enough fruit and vegetables, that it was a lot of carbs.

Erin Budreau’s student speaks before a panel of school and district personnel to present their case for changes to school lunch

Budreau was pleased when the panel took her students seriously and addressed each of their specific concerns. “The district was able to immediately change some things,” Budreau says. There were already vegetarian options and seasoning bars in some schools—just not at Findley—so the district was able to make these changes within a week. Some changes would take more time, such as the shift to more culturally diverse foods with a better variety. Budreau says:

The head chef told the students, “We already know what you’re going to have for lunch every day for the next year, but we are listening to you and we are going to make changes.” The panel was very open to the students and their ideas for culturally diverse foods. They offered that students could share their own family recipes and the chef would see if he could adapt the recipes to fit the Des Moines Public Schools nutrition guidelines. My students knew that their voices would be heard long-term, that as a fifth-grade class they were leaving a legacy behind for other students.

“My students knew that their voices would be heard long-term, that as a fifth-grade class they were leaving a legacy behind for other students.”

In Their Own Words

Findley students explained their reasoning in their proposal. They asked for multicultural foods, vegetarian food, and healthier food on the menu. Here are a few snippets from their proposal:

  • “Many schools have immigrants, and they might miss the food from their native homelands…it could also affect the perspectives of native students, it could teach the natives about the immigrant’s culture and what they eat, giving the immigrant more comfort from other students.”
  • “Some students are vegetarian and cannot enjoy most school food because it has meat in it…it is more likely they would throw the food away and it would be wasted. Wasted food is another thing that may be a problem in school.”
  • “When we get served food, we don’t know how many calories go into the food! … And about our healthy food groups, the servings we are supposed to have are grains, vegetables, fruit, dairy, protein/meat, and occasionally oil and beans. All these servings make up our balanced meals, but sometimes we don’t get these elements.”

Findley’s fifth-graders began to extend their learning beyond the school walls. At the same time as Budreau’s class was working on their legislative proposals project, they were also learning about the historic Tinker vs. Des Moines Supreme Court case. Budreau says her students were inspired to lead positive change beyond improving the school lunches:

My students were saying, “Let’s go to a rally, we want to protest for the equality of the color of our skin.” They were taking their learning to all these different places, coming in at recess and making signs because they wanted to peacefully protest. As their voices were heard and they spoke out for the issues they believed in for the proposals project, it was like a domino effect. It opened up the possibilities for what they can do in the future to make their voices heard in a powerful and productive way.

Erin Budreau’s students hold up their bill proposals and wear black armbands in honor of the Tinker vs. Des Moines Supreme Court case

Budreau’s students didn’t always have this high level of agency. When Findley adopted LSI’s academic teaming—an instructional model where students take ownership of their own learning as they collaborate, peer teach, and peer coach—Budreau says at first she struggled to give up control and let students take the lead in their learning. Once she did stand back, she saw her students shine: “One of the first things I learned from LSI and my coaches was to stand back and listen because there’s so many things students will talk through or figure out without me ever having to jump in. Students know so much more than we give them credit for.” Budreau recalls one student in her classroom with a learning disability who couldn’t read or write, but this student was still able to reach a rigorous level of learning in her academic team due to peer support. Budreau says:

I had one little girl who had been really low proficiency—there were definitely severe learning disabilities. But her peers would hold her at the same accountability as anybody else in the class. They would question her and push her and she rose to meet that expectation. Though she couldn’t read or write, she was very verbal, and it worked. Accountability and group monitoring each other in their academic teams worked for her. It was amazing.

Reflecting on the personal growth of all her students throughout the school year, Budreau believes her students will take their experience of working together to make real change at their school and one day make a positive impact in the world. She says:

I don’t think they knew they could have that kind of impact because I didn’t even know that they could have that kind of impact. I told them: “It’s so much more than changing the lunch. You’re the next generation. You guys are going to be changing way more than a seasoning station at Findley Elementary.” That’s what I wanted them to take away, that their learning was about something bigger and they had a voice in it.

That’s what I wanted them to take away, that their learning was about something bigger and they had a voice in it.