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School food vendor apologizes — again — for ‘inexcusable’ Black History Month menu

Aramark, a food service vendor, served students at Nyack Middle School chicken and waffles and watermelon for dessert on the first day of Black History Month.
/ Source: 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.

Aramark said in a statement to NBC News on Sunday that the situation “never should have happened” and apologized for what it called an “inexcusable mistake.”

“We have apologized for our mistake, are working to determine how it happened and make sure it never happens again,” the statement said. “Our team at that school should have been more thoughtful in its service.”

David Johnson, principal of Nyack Middle School, did not immediately return a request for comment to NBC News on Sunday. He did state in a letter to parents that the school was unaware of the menu, WABC reported.

“The vendor has agreed to plan future menu offerings to align with our values and our longstanding commitment to diversity and inclusion,” the letter said. “We are extremely disappointed by this regrettable situation and apologize to the entire Nyack community for the cultural insensitivity displayed by our food service provider.”

Aramark has been behind similar menus on past holidays commemorating Black people that sparked controversy at two universities going back more than a decade. In 2011, Aramark served chicken and waffles on Martin Luther King Day at the University of California, Irvine.

It said at the time, according to the Los Angeles Times, that the company would conduct cultural sensitivity training for all managers and chefs.

Students at New York University demanded the school cut its ties with Aramark after its Black History Month menu in 2018 included barbecue ribs, cornbread, collard greens, Kool-Aid and watermelon-flavored water, according to The New York Times.

Aramark said at the time that two employees had planned that menu independently without consulting school advisory or cultural groups, which was a violation of company policy, and had been terminated.

An editorial published in the school’s newspaper, Washington Square News, called the “racial stereotyping” by Aramark on college campuses “unacceptable.”

“Although Aramark has made wide public apologies, it should be judged on its actions,” the editorial said. “Serving racially stereotyped food during Black History Month is another clear indicator that Aramark’s values as a company are misaligned.”

NYU sought to cut its ties with Aramark in 2019 and searched for other vendors, according to the Washington Square News, after students protested against the company’s practices. The university’s dining services are now partnered with Chartwells, according to its website.

Associating certain foods with Black culture derives historically from how these foods were once used as symbols in popular media to depict Black people as poor and uncultured following the abolition of slavery.

In the 1915 silent film “The Birth of a Nation,” fried chicken was used as part of the film’s derogatory depictions of Black people. White actors wearing blackface were seen eating fried chicken and tossing bones around the buildings of Congress.

And watermelon has been linked to poverty for centuries. The Atlantic reported in 2014 that as early as 1801, a British officer stationed in Egypt called it a “poor Arab’s feast.”

But these racial stereotypes became more widespread in the U.S. after emancipation, when caricatures of freed slaves sought to paint Black people as ignorant and mindless, according to the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University in Michigan.

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