At the Front Lines of School Health

February 29, 2008

by Mark Bishop, HSC Deputy Director

This past weekend I was asked to speak at a public hearing held by SEIU on healthy school environments.  SEIU represents janitorial workers and school food service staff in many schools. Given our commitment to both green cleaning and healthy food, I was interested in hearing their members’ perspectives on these two issues.

What I heard that day was both inspiring and demoralizing.  It was inspiring to hear story after story of dedicated individuals, passionate about their work and about helping kids.  On the other hand, the stories I heard highlighted the flaws that exist in the system — a system where schools don’t have enough money to operate, where margins are so thin that contractors are forced to minimize labor costs, where our political leaders struggle to find money to fairly and adequately fund our schools.

Some of the stories that were shared included:

  • The school food worker who said she was told to lie to students about the availability of fresh fruit because they didn’t have enough staff to prepare the food for students.
  • The school food worker who was asked for a seconds by a student who said this was the only meal he’d eat that day — and how she was scared that she’d be fired if she gave it to him
  • The janitor who told stories about all the co-workers who were rushed to the hospital with respiratory ailments — without health insurance — because of exposures to toxic cleaning chemicals at school
  • The janitor who said that the school’s contracting company won’t provide the safety protection that is required with the cleaning chemicals they use
  • The school food worker who said she serves food to students even when she is sick because she has no sick-time pay and can’t afford to miss a single minimum wage paycheck
  • The janitor who was told he was responsible for cleaning an additional area after a co-worker was fired but was given no additional time to clean it — leading to areas going uncleaned

I heard speaker after passionate speaker, all of them dedicated to helping children, all of them dedicated to making a better life for themselves.

Our janitors don’t just sweep up trash:  they are an important part of the health staff of our schools. By cleaning properly, they keep our kids from getting sick.

Our school food workers are not just the proverbial lunch lady:  they are parents and community members who take pride in giving our kids the best meal possible.

But if school staff aren’t treated with the respect they deserve, if they aren’t provided with the training and tools they require, school health will suffer and we’ll continue to fight an uphill battle to help our students achieve.