CPS students give Instagram treatment to school lunches like this very sad hot dog

Students and a faculty member at Phillips Academy H.S. have taken the meals into a photo studio to shine a light on the often unappetizing offerings.

SHARE CPS students give Instagram treatment to school lunches like this very sad hot dog
From left to right, senior Neenah Brown, teacher William Hendrickson, sophomore Jalen Smith stand outside Wendell Phillips Academy High School with their photo gear at 244 E. Pershing Road in Bronzeville, Thursday, May 12, 2022.

Senior Neenah Brown (left to right), teacher William Hendrickson and sophomore Jalen Smith stand outside Wendell Phillips Academy High School with their photo gear at 244 E. Pershing Road in Bronzeville, Thursday, May 12, 2022.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Chicago students have complained about school lunches for years — sometimes it’s the freshness, other times it’s the taste or even the quantity. In recent years, many cellphone snapshots of the meals have made their way onto students’ social media accounts.

Wanting to take a creative approach to those gripes, a group of Phillips Academy High School students teamed up with a teacher over the past few months for a project that started with a simple thought: What if we took highly produced, high-resolution photos of the meals that were beautiful to look at — but also full of irony?

“From an artistic standpoint, we kind of want to trick the viewer with that happy look,” said William Hendrickson, a teacher at Phillips in Bronzeville. “Because when they keep looking and notice that lunch is just a hot dog and cucumber slices, it’s a little different than if it was a poorly lit cell phone picture.”

A hot dog, six slices of cucumbers, condiments and a carton of milk

A hot dog, six slices of cucumbers, condiments and a carton of milk

Provided/William Hendrickson

Hendrickson, who teaches civics and photography, recalls heading to the cafeteria to fill up his water bottle one day and looking around at students’ lunches and thinking, “This is pretty bad.”

“Kids were walking out with milk and an orange and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” he said. “That doesn’t seem like lunch. It’s the amount of food and also the quality.”

Neenah Brown, a senior in Hendrickson’s photography club, said she told Hendrickson all about her bad food experiences a few months back.

“Looking at a school lunch, you’re just going to see a hot dog and cucumbers and be like, ‘Um, this isn’t the best school meal,’” she said. “And the cucumbers are optional, it doesn’t even come with it.”

Chili cheese with sour cream, raisins and milk

Chili cheese with sour cream, raisins and milk

Provided/William Hendrickson

Neenah doesn’t blame the cafeteria workers, who she said try their best to put together decent meals with the resources they’re given. But she said she’s been served scrapped-together meals when ingredients run out, fish sticks with a bone and generally unappetizing food.

Other students complained about limited vegetarian options or frequently being offered nothing other than peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

So to shed light on the recurring problems, Neenah would grab food from the cafeteria during her lunch period and run down to a makeshift studio in the school basement. Hendrickson compared the group to a pit crew.

Jalen Smith, 15, said the project shines an important light on the food kids are given. He said he’s been served undercooked chicken and cold food that’s supposed to be hot, or vice versa.

“It is not something I would choose to eat. I mainly eat it because I would rather not starve myself,” he said.

A hamburger patty and slice of cheese between slices of white bread, a salad, an apple, condiments and a carton of milk

A hamburger patty and slice of cheese between slices of white bread, a salad, an apple, condiments and a carton of milk

Provided/ William Hendrickson

In one photo featured in the project, there’s a chili cheese meal with a side of raisins and milk. Another features a hamburger patty with a slice of cheese inside slices of white bread next to a salad, apple and milk. One is a small pizza round with an orange, raisins and milk.

“In that peanut butter and jelly photo, there’s a gob of peanut butter in there, right? Like it weighed a lot,” Hendrickson said. “My student asked, ‘Hey, can you put less peanut butter on there?’ And the answer was, ‘No I can’t, this is how much I have to give you,’ because that’s the cheap way of having enough protein for the day.”

Others meals, like chicken strips with tater tots and an orange, aren’t so bad, students said.

Neenah said in some cases, they ended up making the food more appetizing than reality. The “food looks even worse in person,” she said — like fast food commercials that show fresh burgers that look far better than they do at the restaurant.

Chicago Public Schools spokeswoman Mary Fergus said the district is “committed to providing healthy, high-quality food to all students” and “strives to incorporate student perspective and voice in district decisions.”

Fergus pointed to guidance on CPS’ website that says any students who have consistent complaints about the food at their school should report them to their cafeteria manager and principal, and start a daily log that includes dates, times, photos and an explanation. Those concerns should be emailed to food@cps.edu.

A peanut butter and jelly sandwich, salad, apple and carton of milk

A peanut butter and jelly sandwich, salad, apple and carton of milk

Provided/William Hendrickson

CPS’ school meals and nutrition webpage also notes, “Due to national supply chain disruptions and shortages, we may have to make changes to our menus with little or no notice. Please know that we are doing our best to serve meals as planned. We apologize in advance and thank you for understanding!”

The website lists menus for both elementary and high schools each month. Guidelines say at least one vegetarian breakfast and lunch must be offered every day, and meatless protein can include tofu, soy, beans, legumes, peanut butter and Greek yogurt.

Though Neenah loved how the project turned out and built her passion for photography, “This is kind of sad that we have to do this to make a change. You should know when something isn’t right.”

“I hope the quality of the food improves as well as consideration of what the students would like to eat,” Jalen said. “Hopefully the effect this has on some adults is, ‘Wow, they’re serving this to our children. Something has to be done.’”

Hendrickson said the project mirrors an important lesson he teaches his civics classes.

“My thing is, use the tools you have to create the change you want, or add to that conversation,” he said. “I think they’re getting that.”

A pizza round, raisins, an orange and a carton of milk

A pizza round, raisins, an orange and a carton of milk

Provided/William Hendrickson

Fish sticks, sweet potato fries, cucumbers, an orange and a carton of milk

Fish sticks, sweet potato fries, cucumbers, an orange and a carton of milk

Provided/William Hendrickson

Macaroni pasta, celery, an apple and a carton of milk

Macaroni pasta, celery, an apple and a carton of milk

Provided/William Hendrickson

A peanut butter and jelly sandwich, an orange, carrots and a carton of milk

A peanut butter and jelly sandwich, an orange, carrots and a carton of milk

Provided/William Hendrickson

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