The school vendor served chicken and watermelon at the start of Black History Month

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On February 1, college students in New York were to be served cheesesteaks, broccoli and fruit for lunch, according to a letter from the school. However, the meal changed on the first day of Black History Month to chicken, waffles and watermelon.

In a letter to parents, Nyack Middle School principal David Johnson blamed the school’s food vendor, Aramark, for serving what he wrote as an “inexcusably insensitive” meal. Aramark quickly apologized.

“The situation at this college was our mistake and should never have happened,” an Aramark spokeswoman said in a statement. “It stands in direct contrast to who we are as a company and our long-standing commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. We apologized for our mistake, we are working to determine how it happened and we are making sure it never happens again.”

Philadelphia-based Aramark has been charged with other instances of racial insensitivity.

In February 2018, Aramark served a meal at New York University in honor of Black History Month. This included barbecued ribs, cornbread, collard greens, Kool-Aid and watermelon flavored water, The New York Times reported. Aramark said he fired employees who planned the meal without consulting school staff. The following year, NYU terminated its contract with Aramark, according to the student newspaper.

When University of California, Irvine students were served chicken and waffles on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2011, Aramark said its managers and chefs would undergo cultural sensitivity training, the Los Angeles reported. Angeles Times.

Johnson, principal of Nyack Middle School, said the similar meal served to his students last week “reflected a lack of understanding of our district’s vision for addressing racial bias.”

“We are extremely disappointed with this unfortunate development,” Johnson wrote, “and apologize to the entire Nyack community for the cultural insensitivity displayed by our food service provider.”

Since the Jim Crow era, watermelons have been used as a racist trope. After emancipation, blacks grew and sold watermelons, and they came to symbolize their self-sufficiency and freedom, according to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. White Southerners reacted by using the symbol to demean black people, a museum article says.

Fried chicken has also been used to mock black Americans, due to slaves’ knowledge of the common but sacred farm animal in West Africa, The Washington Post reported. Marcia Chatelain, professor of history and African American studies at Georgetown University, wrote in 2019 that while “some argue that slaves perfected the techniques to make it”, fried chicken has “often been used as a prop in popular culture to degrade black people.”

Honore Santiago, a student at Nyack, told WABC she was confused last week when food workers asked her if she wanted watermelon, an item she says is rarely served in winter. The meal made the students uncomfortable, Santiago told the station, “especially the kids who are my color.”

In a statement, Aramark said its employees would undergo training on stereotypes and biases. A spokeswoman did not respond to questions about whether any employees had been disciplined.

“We serve millions of meals every day and our team does a great job meeting the needs of the communities we serve,” Aramark said in a statement. “But, in this case, we made an inexcusable mistake and we apologize for it.”

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