“Um, I remember always getting cheese bagels or yogurt in elementary school.”
This was the immediate response from Ithacan teen, Umeek when prompted with my inquiries into his school food experiences. He explained that often in elementary school you felt like you didn’t have many options for school lunch. He reflected on how he empathized with the Ruby Bridges story. He was one of a few Black kids in his school and often felt uncomfortable with the food served.
As teen, he stated he didn’t remember his high school having many options for lunch either. The vegan-friendly menu didn’t resonate with him. He felt the “organic, gluten-free and dairy free” options left him craving his grandmother’s home-cooked meals. “I have trouble eating anybody else’s food, but my grandmother’s,” Umeek chuckled.
He also explained that some high schools in the area allow student to go off campus for lunch. However, high school students are met with prices that appeal to the thousands of Cornell and Ithaca College students. The pocket change in a teen’s wallet cannot sustain a daily trek to the Commons. Umeek stated, “There are literally no options.” He listed off places like Casablanca, Capital Corner, Gorgers and Wendy’s as the food options for his demographic. “ The Commons is for older people and students…it’s not for residents.” Umeek went as far as Cortland to get A&W, a place he says is better than anything in Ithaca. He affirmed further “you have more options if you have a car.”
In his opinion, the majority of the restaurants in the Commons and Ithaca cater to the college elite. The cuisine, prices and locations directly reflect the food businesses’ concentration on the student population. “If you were here 10 years ago, the Commons would look different,” Umeek urged. He commented that the Northside neighborhood has changed tremendously with a rise in Asian cuisine.
Umeek’s perspective as a teen in the community provided a unique lens to question what school food options there are for residents, especially young people. His interview left me with questions about the prices and cost of living’s impact on the residents’ ability to engage with the food businesses in Ithaca. Does the healthy, vegan, gluten-free and dairy free food industry or restaurants leave some people out of the loop because they can’t identify with the cuisine? What does school food mean and why does it have an impersonal touch to it?
Umeek is a teen from Ithaca and currently works for the Multicultural Resource Center as a Youth Organizing Fellow.
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