GUEST POST: Spanish-speaking mothers demand healthier food from SVVSD

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This story was produced as a result of the TRENDS Reporting Fellowship at Community Foundation Boulder County.

Friday, June 4, 2021

En español

By Silvana Munro

For several months, a group of Latina mothers has been trying to work with St. Vrain Valley School District to improve the quality of our children’s school lunches. We have been met with delays, dismissals and lack of translation services that ensure equal access and participation to district decisions.

The process has revealed inequities in the way non-English speaking parents are treated. While we hold out hope for a better working relationship with SVVSD, our experiences thus far have left our largest request — healthier food for our kids — unanswered.

We are a group of Spanish-speaking moms who belong to ELPASO VOZ Longmont, an organization that empowers Hispanic parents in order to raise their voices and use their leadership skills to address the issues that impact their communities.

We come from countries like Mexico, Peru and Ecuador. Some of us only speak Spanish; others are bilingual. We work in different fields as stay-at home-moms, teachers, cashiers, bakers, geographers, cleaning staff, translators and accountants. We are all very different, but something we have in common is the commitment to build a better future for our kids.

In June, 2020, we chose to work on an issue of concern in our city. After discussing a variety of topics like mental health, the dangers of legalizing marijuana, lack of light in the parks, etc., we decided that the most concerning issue was the highly processed foods that St. Vrain Valley School District has been offering to students for many years, included our own kids.

With this great commitment in our hands, we embarked in this great adventure that is still ongoing.

We knew that we had to talk to the SVVSD Department of Nutrition Services to try to achieve a school food model similar to the one in Boulder Valley School District (whose nutrition program implemented by chef Ann Cooper offers meals made from scratch, free of chemicals and additives). But first, we had to do a lot of research, interview the experts, and most importantly, develop a proposal to improve the situation (Small task, right?)

While juggling work, the pandemic, family and online learning, we made some space to meet over Zoom in the evenings to research about the ingredients of every food item offered at SVVSD (listed in their website), their nutritional value and their potential impacts in the human body. We interviewed chefs, nutritionists, farmers, and compared the food budgets from SVVSD and BVSD.

After five months of hard work, we came to the conclusion that overconsumption of highly processed foods leads to serious health issues like obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, etc., because they contain unhealthy levels of fat, sugar, high fructose corn syrup and more. We were also shocked to find out that 56% of these school meals go to the free and reduced lunch program aimed for low-income children.* Thousands of kids in need depend on these heavily processed foods every day.

That’s when we drafted our proposal: “Within a year, SVVSD has to commit to gradually change, at least, 75% of the school meals ingredients, and replace them for fresh, organic meals made from scratch bought in local farms; and to implement monthly nutrition classes in the schools for parents and kids” — something very different from their Cooking Matters program.

With all this research, we were ready to meet virtually with Shelly Allen, Director of Nutrition & Warehouse Services at SVVSD. We set a meeting for December 2020, stating the need for simultaneous interpretation services since most of the moms in our group only spoke Spanish.

Then came the day of our presentation where we showed our findings and asked our questions in Spanish. Unfortunately, after a few minutes into the meeting we realized that Allen had not brought us a professional interpreter, instead she brought her coworker, Sandra Melara, who did not know how to provide interpretation services and took our presentation as a personal attack to her work in the Nutrition Services Department. Melara often added her personal remarks and mocked our concerns while interpreting. Allen and Melara repeatedly stated that they had no time to meet with us in the afternoons because their families were waiting for them at home, that our meeting had already been going on for an hour and that we had to finish our conversation, that it would be better that I provided the interpretation for the rest of meeting since I knew more about the topic.

We couldn’t deliver the majority of our message due to the language barrier, and because we were not taken seriously. We felt humiliated, discriminated, treated as ignorant for not speaking the language. However, we didn’t give up. Despite that Allen and Melara tried to end the meeting several times, we asked to be given another opportunity to present our case.

We agreed to an online meeting on January 2021, but Allen later cancelled it. After sending multiple emails without a reply for three months, we finally got a meeting date for April 2021 thanks to the advocacy of Olga Cordero, Director, Equity & Community Engagement at SVVSD. At this meeting, we had a trained interpreter and simultaneous interpretation through Zoom. By law, SVVSD is required to provide language access but our Boulder County allies were the ones who stepped up and kindly allowed us to use their Zoom account even though it was the District’s responsibility.

Editor’s note: A spokesperson for SVVSD declined to schedule an interview with district officials and declined to answer a list of questions sent by email. She provided this statement during a brief telephone call: “The issue has been addressed with the interpreter at the first meeting. We have staff on medical leave that has unfortunately slowed down the process. We’ve had a very strong working relationship for many years with ELPASO VOZ and look forward to that continuing.”

The spokesperson also forwarded a letter it had sent to representatives of ELPASO VOZ outlining the steps the district was taking to improve nutrition and nutritional education for students.

Eventually, we were able to deliver our message thanks to Cordero. We met with Allen; Johnny Terrell, Executive Director of Student Services; and Brian Lamer, Assistant Superintendent of Operations. They heard our proposal and promised a reply and a guided tour to the district’s warehouse so we can better understand the process of purchasing school meals. Terrell stated that he would do his best to provide simultaneous interpreting on Webex or Zoom at the beginning of the 2021 school year. Allen set a date to visit the warehouse on June 21.

We want to support the district in their efforts to improve the school meals. We’d love to see more moms join our cause. It is unfair that students in need rely on unhealthy meals that cause cancer, diabetes, ADHD and more. The inequities are pretty evident when other groups led by Anglosaxon, English-speaking parents like SURJ and Safe Schools get to meet with district officials twice a month without any delays.

We feel we deserve equal access to district officials as these groups. That includes providing us with the interpretation necessary to communicate our ideas. We deserve to have our voices heard, and all the children at SVVSD deserve healthier meals.

This letter is endorsed by:
Karla Alvarez
Roxana Álvarez
Susana Barrios
Karla Cardoza
Liz Castro
Lorena García
Teresa García
Noemí Gavelan
Erendira Juarez
Joselyn Macías
Uri Martínez
Carolina Neri
Jackeline Oquendo
Monica Pulido
Rosa Rubio
María Valdez

Shay Castle contributed reporting and editing to this piece.

*In a letter to ELPASO VOZ, SVVSD’s Shelly Allen wrote that “Over 26% or about 8,300 St. Vrain students qualified for FRL prior to Covid-19. In addition, one-third of St. Vrain schools have a FRL of 50% or greater, and seven of those schools in a non-pandemic year qualify for the Universal Free program.”

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