Looking for a place to eat in the cafeteria can be nerve-wracking and at times excruciating for students who are not part of the campus social scene. For shy, bullied or unpopular students, lunchtime is typically the most painful part of the day. Such scenes are staples in pop culture depictions of high school (who can forget the heroine of Mean Girls eating lunch in a bathroom stall, or Hannah Baker dining alone in 13 Reasons Why?). Feeling rejected and unconfident from these experiences can carry over into adulthood.
Lunchtime cliques divided along racial, religious or other lines create boundaries few dare to cross. This may intensify isolation, racism and intolerance on campus.
In the San Fernando Valley, teachers, education support professionals and students are working to change this. A few share tips to make lunchtime more inclusive.
Jada Gamble and Paula Mercado at a lunchtime ice cream social in Ashley Cooper’s classroom.
Start a ‘No One Eats Alone’ program
Ashley Cooper’s classroom at Thousand Oaks High School is more than just a place where students take health, biology and peer mentoring classes. It’s also a place for students to make new friends during lunchtime. On any given day, 30 to 40 students find a safe haven in Room E7.
Cooper started a No One Eats Alone program at her school to make lunchtime less lonely for students who are socially awkward, new on campus or seeking a wider friendship circle. Several students volunteer as peer mentors, who help introduce students to others and socialize.
Recently Cooper received a letter from the mother of a ninth-grader who said her child usually came home from school in tears, and now walks through the door with a smile.
“It is making a difference,” says Cooper. “Students feel that teachers and other students at school care about them. And we have noticed improvement in the classroom when it comes to behavior and grades. Students are happier overall.”
A national organization, Beyond Differences, launched the No One Eats Alone program in California in 2012. Today schools in all 50 states participate.
Starting a program was a natural extension of Cooper’s peer mentoring class. Created after a student committed suicide, the program offers support to students struggling with loneliness, depression or anxiety. The goal is to make students feel welcome, rather than underscoring that they have nobody to eat lunch with.
Teens perceived as isolated by Cooper and the peer mentors are issued invitations to lunchtime events such as pizza parties or ice cream socials. For some, it is the first time they’ve been invited to anything in high school. The program has become so popular that students without invitations are showing up. Cooper believes a bigger venue will be needed soon.
It is making a difference. Students feel that teachers and other students at school care about them. – Ashley Cooper, Unified Association of Conejo Teachers
“It’s become an everyday program,” says Cooper, who belongs to the Unified Association of Conejo Teachers. “Everyone is welcome — and we still issue invitations to those who are not feeling connected to campus.”
Participants call themselves “The Lunch Bunch,” and during a recent ice cream social, there was plenty of laughter, visiting and good will.
“I didn’t know what to think when I received an invitation,” admits Rachael Hood, a senior last year. “But I thought, ‘Why not branch out a bit,’ and I came back every day. I made new friends. I’ve become a little more confident. I’ve become a little more comfortable.”
Madison Young, who began attending as a sophomore, says it is a relief to sit with others who aren’t going to judge her and people she can relax and feel “goofy” with.
“Joining the Lunch Bunch helped me meet others and come out of my shell,” says Sam Barton, who didn’t know very many people on campus when he enrolled as a freshman.
Peer mentors say they benefit just as much as those they invite. Cooper was surprised by this.
“Peer mentors are popular kids, but it’s come to light that they have just as many social insecurities as other students — they just mask it better,” Cooper says. “Everybody worries about what people think — especially with so much social media. I am so proud of their authentic compassion for others and their desire to support their peers.”
Peer mentor Melissa Franco says it has been a learning opportunity, and she has enjoyed getting to know others outside of her social circle.
“It feels like one big family hanging out for lunch.”
Peer mentor Jaylynn Boyd puts it in simpler terms.
“It just makes me feel happy,” she smiles.
For more information about the No One Eats Alone program, visit beyonddifferences.org.
Start a Humanitarian Club
When incidents of racism on social media rocked Buena High School in Ventura in January 2017, Farah Ali decided it was time to bring students together by forming a lunchtime club to explore differences in cultures, races and religions. The special education paraeducator joined forces with a colleague — college and career teacher Emmet Cullen — to create the Humanitarian Initiative Club, which meets Wednesdays during lunch.
The club includes students from diverse backgrounds, and has general education students as well as those with special needs.
Ali, who is Muslim, wants to make inclusion the new cool at school, because she feels the divisiveness on campus reflects the global situation in today’s political climate.
“A lot of people have forgotten what it means to be human, so we formed a club to promote humanity and inclusiveness. We make sure everyone has a voice on campus, so we can have an environment where people feel confident and develop a sense of self-esteem,” says Ali, a member of the Ventura Education Support Professionals Association.
“Regardless of who people are and what they look like, they will be treated with empathy, compassion and respect here,” says Cullen, a member of the Ventura Unified Education Association. “Being humanitarians helps students connect to the world around us.”
Club President Olivia Velasquez, a senior this year, says it offers more than a safe place to eat lunch. She believes the rich discussions will eventually help transform the overall school climate.
Senior Mackenzie Pina thinks the Humanitarian Initiative Club helps students feel more hopeful about the future.
“The world isn’t all bad. But when bad things happen, it’s what you hear about. One of my goals here as a student is becoming empowered to make changes in the world. I want other students to know that together, we can be that positive change.”