While you might not have heard of them (I hadn’t), Aramark is a company that provides food services and uniforms to hospitals, stadiums, universities, and public school districts in multiple countries. They got themselves into a bit of trouble last week, however, when they served lunch at Nyack Middle School in upstate New York. It was the first day of February, making it also the first day of Black History Month. Teachers and parents raised complaints of “insensitivity” when the Aramark staff served chicken and waffles, with watermelon being one of the choices for dessert. This was apparently not the first time that’s happened and the company was quickly forced to make a public apology. (NBC News)
A vendor that provides food service to schools apologized for the “unintentional insensitivity” of its Black History Month menu, echoing similar apologies it has made for more than a decade amid backlash over racially insensitive menus.
Students at Nyack Middle School in New York were served chicken and waffles with a choice of watermelon for dessert on the first day of Black History Month on Wednesday, according to WABC-TV. The school’s administration and its food vendor, Aramark, apologized after students and parents pointed out the racial stereotypes the menu reinforced.
It’s probably a sign of the times we live in that my first impulse upon hearing this was to think that the company’s workers must be seriously tone-deaf. But upon further reflection, I found myself wondering why this is even an issue.’
Why is it offensive to serve or even mention chicken, waffles, or watermelon in any context? Where did that idea come from? More to the point, who doesn’t like chicken aside from a few crazed vegans? Waffles shouldn’t be problematic unless you’re trying to cut down on carbs. And watermelon is awesome, though the seeds can be a pain in the butt.
I decided to dig into the question and found that another school in Massachusetts was similarly excoriated last February for serving chicken and watermelon for a Black History Month celebratory lunch. (Ironically, the idea had been suggested by a Black cafeteria worker.) The Boston Globe covered the “scandal” along with a bit of the history behind it.
It turns out that after slavery ended, newly freed slaves in the south, particularly women, began earning money by selling fried chicken to travelers at train stations and public intersections. Watermelons were also a staple crop for Black farmers who were attempting to establish their own businesses. This somehow morphed into mocking cartoons in newspapers that branded those items as “Black food.” Many historical examples are available.
So okay… I get it. That was a thing that happened back in the late 19th century and into the early 20th. But aside from a couple of actual racists (like Fuzzy Zoeller at the 1997 Masters Tournament), you don’t seem to hear or see that anymore. And it never made any sense to begin with. White people were already eating chicken long before slavery ended and continued to do so, though perhaps their chicken wasn’t quite as good as the soul food version. And they were eating watermelon as well. Otherwise, why would they have been growing so much of it?
Watermelon is just a delicious fruit, but fried chicken is still considered to be a Black cultural menu item that expanded and improved America’s food culture. Shouldn’t that be celebrated, rather than condemned, even if you serve it in February? You can choose to be offended if you wish, I suppose, but it sounds like some of these people at Nyack Middle School are honestly just searching for a reason to be offended.