By JoAnne Robinett, MSA, SNS 2017-01-05 04:31:32
Civil rights protections apply to students, families and the school nutrition team. When I was raising my children, there were many occasions when each of the three, in turn, protested, “It’s not fair!” They would be incensed by acts of favoritism they perceived happening to a sibling or a classmate. They would yell about it, sometimes even pout, stomp or cry. I understood—no one wants to be treated unfairly. As a mother, I had to find a way to deal with their bruised egos and their sense of wanting more. Did you realize that fairness is actually mandated in the federal school meal programs? It has been established that all Americans have civil rights. Civil rights are defined as: “The nonpolitical rights of a citizen; the rights of personal liberty guaranteed to U.S. citizens by the 13th and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and by acts of Congress.” Civil rights rules exist to guarantee fair treatment—and in our government, they apply any time a program receives federal financial assistance (whether it’s in the form of cash, commodities, equipment, training, etc.). The goals of civil rights are to: • Eliminate barriers to program benefits; • Provide equal treatment to all; • Explain rights and responsibilities; and • Show respect and dignity to all. In school nutrition, these rules apply not just to those who receive meals through such services as the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), but also to those of us working in foodservice operations participating in the NSLP and other federal school nutrition programs administered by USDA. That includes cafeteria cooks, cashiers, servers and dishwashers, as well as managers, supervisors, directors and dietitians. The rules extend to the companies we do business with and even those who might become our future partners. USDA requires that all staff who work with child nutrition program applicants or participants receive annual civil rights training. This is to ensure that people who are involved at all levels of the program understand civil rights rules. This article isn’t intended to replace that training, which is much more comprehensive, but to reinforce your understanding of the basic rules and concepts. CIVIL RIGHTS 101 We have both civil rights and responsibilities, which have become law through a series of legislative acts. These include: • Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance. • The Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in all services, programs, and activities provided to the public by state and local governments. • Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits discrimination based on sex under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. • The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination based on disability. • The Age Discrimination Act of 1975, which prohibits discrimination based on age in programs or activities receiving federal financial assistance. Those Acts, and USDA’s guidance, establish six different “protected classes” for school nutrition programs. Federal law prohibits discrimination on the basis of any protected class. Officially, these are: Race, Color, National Origin, Sex, Disability and Age. What does it mean to discriminate against one of these six classes? It starts with “stereotyping,” which is an oversimplified generalization of beliefs about a group. (“I believe older people are slow.”) “Prejudice” can be defined as a set of rigid and unfavorable attitudes, formed generally without consideration of facts, toward a particular group. (“I don’t like older people, because they are slow.”) “Discrimination” is acting on those beliefs—the practice of treating people differently based on your conception. (“I won’t hire an older worker, because I believe he or she will be too slow for the job.”) Discrimination doesn’t just apply to hiring, it also relates to equal opportunities for student access, customer service, meal service, confidentiality, language assistance, menu accommodations and more. Let’s look at the different protected classes and review ways that discrimination might happen, if you don’t take care. CAFETERIA CONTEXT The three classes of Race, Color and National Origin might seem to be the same things on the surface. Indeed, in terms of your daily interactions, the differences between these classes are so subtle—and the overlap so prevalent (a single student could embody all three)—that it’s reasonable to look at these all together. For example, let’s say you have a second-grade student who is Asian American. Though she is a second-generation American (both she and her parents were born in this country), her national origin—in this case, her ancestry—is obvious in her appearance, as is her race. The color of her skin might be the same as yours, or lighter or darker. What you see simply helps you to recognize her (“Good morning, Lisa!”) when she comes to the cafeteria. Her civil rights guarantee that you will treat her just the same as every other student looking for breakfast and a smile to start their day! What about the fourth-grade boy whose appearance doesn’t give you a clue about his race, but he does not seem to understand you when you ask him a question? His civil rights guarantee that you will not discriminate against him in the serving line or dining area based on his national origin— he gets the same warm smile and same delicious breakfast! Additionally, your district office is required to have either a translation of materials available for his family or to provide a translator, if the family has Limited English Proficiency (LEP). This will ensure the student has meaningful access to meal programs and benefits. You might have the good intention to try to make children from different national origins or races more comfortable by suggesting they sit at a table with other children who are from the same ethnicity or asking another student to translate for you. Don’t. Such acts can be misconstrued not as kindness, but as discriminatory. The law recognizes two broad categories of ethnicities: “Hispanic or Latino” or “Non-Hispanic or Non-Latino.” The law also recognizes a number of racial categories: “American Indian or Alaskan Native,” “Asian,” “Black or African American,” “Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander” and “White.” When families fill out the paperwork to apply for meal benefits, they are asked questions about their race and ethnicity. This is not done to target any group of students. It’s a step to help districts collect and compile data that paints a picture of the community’s diversity. Now, let’s take a brief look at the other three federally protected classes: Sex, Disability and Age. You need to take care not to show favoritism between boys and girls. For example, if you are serving mashed potatoes, and the production record says the correct portion size is a half-cup serving, then that is the portion that everyone gets— don’t dip a little heavier for Johnny than you did for Julie, simply because you believe “growing boys need more food” or “teenage girls need to watch their figures.” You need to guard against gender-based discrimination behind the serving line and in the kitchen, too. It doesn’t matter if your team is as close “as family,” the workplace is no place for comments that cross the line and might make someone uncomfortable. For you and the other “ladies,” it may seem like you’re just “teasing” the lone guy in the group, but it’s not about your intention as much as it is the perceptions of those on the receiving end of jokes that make someone feel separate and different. Equally serious are behaviors that can be classified as sexual harassment. These include inappropriate jokes, touching, sharing of sexually based communications (text and pictures), requests for sexual favors and so on. Report violations to management, state or federal officials. Civil rights protect those with disabilities: “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of an individual’s major life activities.” Your priority is to ensure that students with disabilities have accommodations that allow them to have access to safe, nutritious meals. Accommodations can take many forms. It might mean making physical changes to the serving line or dining area to remove barriers. But if the space cannot be changed to accommodate a student’s needs, then you need to make different accommodations, possibly in service or delivery, to get the meal to the student. Some disabilities aren’t visible. For example, a food allergy can be a life-threatening disability. Or a student has a digestive condition that qualifies as a disability—and thus for menu modifications. Such modifications might require serving an alternate meal that still complies with all other meal pattern requirements. A peanut allergy doesn’t mean asking the child to fill up on broccoli instead of the PB&J sandwich—it means you serve another food item from the meat/meat alternate group, such as a cheese sandwich. Another type of modification might require you to change the texture of the foods served. Perhaps today’s lunch menu includes baby carrots that you will have to mash or puree for the student whose disability prevents her from swallowing solid carrots. The meal pattern features different serving sizes and nutrient requirements for students of different age groups, which means older children are going to receive larger portions or additional items. But this is not age discrimination. The federal government can establish certain requirements and variations based on age. You cannot show preferences based on age, however. This means you can’t offer special treats only to the first-graders, simply because they are so darn cute! Nor can you offer second helpings to fifth-graders going through a growth spurt. Fair is fair to all! THE WELCOME MAT Schools participating in the federal child nutrition programs must ensure that all meal program benefits—and the meals themselves—are equally accessible to all families in the community. Most of us can’t imagine being discriminatory when it comes to providing school meals to students, but such behaviors can creep up unconsciously, if you aren’t mindful. Consider the “4 Ds” of discriminatory practices. • Delay. Were meals or meal benefits delayed to this student or group of students for any reason? • Denied. Were meals or meal benefits denied to this student or group of students for reasons outside of those established by USDA? • Differently. Was the student treated the same as other students? Was the family’s meal application judged by the same standards for approval and verification? • Disparate. Did any action taken by the district’s school nutrition department appear less than equal for this student? It’s also important to examine not only what you shouldn’t do to discriminate, but what you should do to promote inclusion! Do your program materials, cafeteria decorations, communications and so on convey welcoming messages about diversity? Take a look at your text and your graphics with this in mind. In particular, a non-discrimination statement needs to be included on all forms of communication and materials regarding the federal meal programs. At a minimum, flyers, menus, websites, etc., all should include the following statement: “This institution is an equal opportunity provider.” Visit http://www.fns.usda.gov/fns-nondiscrimination-statement for more details. What if someone complains about discrimination? Take it seriously! Your workplace is required to include the prominent display of a poster that proclaims “And Justice for All.” It’s much more than just a reminder for impartiality; it also describes what to do and who to contact, if a perceived injustice has occurred. All verbal or written complaints regarding civil rights violations must be forwarded to either your state agency or USDA within three days of receiving the complaint, even if the complaint is anonymous. You can prevent most civil rights complaints simply by following the golden rule. Ask yourself: “Am I treating this person in a fair, kind, customer-friendly manner, as I treat others and as I expect to be treated?” KITCHEN CONFIDENTIAL You might not need a security clearance to do your job, but you do have access to sensitive materials. The information disclosed on school meal applications is strictly confidential. It is not to be used for any purpose other than determining meal benefits and complying with other federal and state requirements regarding data collection. A family may waive their right to confidentiality, but even if this waiver is signed, it only waives information for very specific uses. A student is never to be treated differently because of information revealed on the meal application, including race or family income. If you are aware of meal eligibility details (that is, if a child is in the free, reduced-price or paid categories), you must not share or comment upon that information to anyone. That includes your co-workers in the back of the kitchen, the school nurse or even the principal. You are trusted to keep this information in confidence and should do everything possible to avoid overtly identifying a student in a manner that would reveal or hint at their status. Stereotyping: oversimplified generalization of beliefs about a group. Prejudice: set of rigid and unfavorable attitudes toward a particular group. Discrimination: acting on those beliefs. WHAT’S REQUIRED Here is an abbreviated list of Civil Rights requirements for school meal programs: • Distribute a Public Release at the beginning of the year to let everyone know the meal programs that are available and the fact that free and reduced-price meals are offered to all who qualify. • Display the “And Justice for All” poster prominently at all sites. • Include the non-discrimination statement on all forms, signage and other communications. • Through the application process, the district office collects racial and ethnic data. • Accommodate disabilities. Provide equal access to programs, program materials and meals to all. • Train staff annually on Civil Rights. JoAnne Robinett is owner of America’s Meal (www.americasmeal.com), providing training, speaking and consulting services in school nutrition. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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