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‘Stop Letting White People Control Our Self-Perception’: New York School’s Apology for Serving Chicken and Watermelon on the First Day of Black History Month Draws Mixed Reactions

A suburban New York City middle school and its lunch provider are under fire after community stakeholders claim the school was culturally insensitive to its Black student population when it served chicken and watermelon on the first day of Black History Month.

A student said she was both offended and baffled because the fruit dessert, often used as a derogatory stereotype, is “out of season” in the winter.

On Wednesday, Feb. 1, students at Nyack Middle School in Rockland County, New York, were served chicken and waffles with watermelon for dessert for lunch. A menu switch, according to the principal was made at the last minute by the outside vendor hired to design meals for the youth, ABC 7 reports.

Nyack School Serves Chicken and Waffles
Chicken and waffles served with watermelon. (Photo: YouTube screenshot/ The Fowler Show)

The food vendor, Aramark, apologized, recognizing the menu change demonstrated “unintentional insensitivity” that no one expected to be an issue.

Honore Santiago, one of the school’s Black students, said she automatically felt the overcast that the African-American stereotype invokes. She said, “Didn’t think the company was capable of making us feel bad … especially the kids my color.”

According to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture, “Before it became a racist stereotype in the Jim Crow era, watermelon once symbolized self-sufficiency among African Americans.”

“Following Emancipation, many Southern African Americans grew and sold watermelons, and it became a symbol of their freedom. Many Southern whites reacted to this self-sufficiency by turning the fruit into a symbol of poverty,” it further explained. “Watermelon came to symbolize a feast for the ‘unclean, lazy and child-like.’ To shame Black watermelon merchants, popular ads, and ephemera, including postcards pictured African Americans stealing, fighting over, or sitting in streets eating watermelon.”

This stereotype injected into pop culture psychology colors why Santiago, her mother, classmates and so many others are outraged. To make matters worse, Santiago astutely observes, “They were asking people if they want watermelon and I remember being confused because it’s not in season.”

The public was split about the controversy with some people seeing a racial slight and others seeing communal oversensitivity.

One online user said, “Black people need to reclaim watermelon.”

“There’s nothing wrong with the fact that the watermelon crop helped our people earn a living post-slavery. That’s nothing to be ashamed of just because white people were evil and made fun of us for it,” the commenter wrote. “There’s nothing shameful about chicken either, the whole damn world eats chicken. We gotta stop letting white people control our self-perception.”

Popular radio host, Charlamagne Tha God, however, gave the company his signature “Donkey of the Day” award.

Some on Twitter said they would be grateful for the switch in the menu.

For some, this is an issue of having more people at the table.

“This is what happens when there is no minority representation in the room or folks are too afraid to speak out. A sensible person would have remarked at how problematic this is,” one person tweeted.

School Principal David Johnson said he was not aware that the meal selection was curated to include chicken and watermelon, adding the vendor changed the menu without letting the school know. The original menu was supposed to be Philly cheesesteak, broccoli, and fresh fruit.

The principal noted the items selected for that day did exactly what his young student suggested, reinforced “negative stereotypes concerning the African-American community,” and publicly apologized, sharing the steps he made in response to the cultural faux pas.

“The offering of chicken & waffles as an entree with watermelon as a dessert on the first day of Black History Month was inexcusably insensitive and reflected a lack of understanding of our district’s vision to address racial bias,” he wrote in a letter directed to school parents.

“Nyack Public Schools administrators contacted Aramark officials to insist on a mechanism to avoid a repeat of yesterday’s mistake. The vendor has agreed to plan future menu offerings to align with our values and our longstanding commitment to diversity and inclusion,” Johnson added. “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 responded with an apology stating, “While our menu was not intended as a cultural meal, we acknowledge that the timing was inappropriate, and our team should have been more thoughtful in its service.”

The food provider also stated it wanted to work with the schools to train their staff in diversity and inclusion.

This is not the first time this has been an issue for Aramark.

In 2011, students at one of its clients, UC California-Irvine, were served chicken and waffles during a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday special, the Washington Post reports.

Again, in 2019, New York University severed its ties with the company after more than 35 years when the meal-providing vendor served another stereotypical menu to students during Black History Month. The college cafeteria featured on its menu ribs, collard greens, cornbread, and watermelon-flavored Kool-Aid in February 2018.

Social media users were quick to spot what they considered a bigoted pattern, saying, “Aramark has done this in 2011 and 2018 and now 2023, the apologies are just excuses atp … like it’s a joke to wash our face with the past.”


In the Nyack Middle School case, Aramark contends this was a dreadful mistake, sharing in a news release, “We serve millions of meals every day and our team does an excellent job meeting the needs of the communities we serve. But, in this case, we made an inexcusable mistake and we apologize.”

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