Students at Cahill Elementary School last month were encouraged to enjoy lunch with students they didn’t know. Mix It Up at Lunch is a program designed to break down social barriers and promote inclusion in a place where cliques are often most pronounced.
“Most kids go to the same table and eat lunch surrounded by the same people every day,” said Christa Mattia, a member of the Cahill Parent Teacher Association and a Mix It Up at Lunch volunteer. “We don’t just want diversity: We also want inclusion. We want students to participate in conversations and be invited into the conversations, not just watch from the outside.”
According to school officials, some students felt Mix It Up at Lunch was a bit awkward, but others found it a comfortable, easy experience. A prearranged seating chart ensured students were seated not with their usual group, but with other kids, including some from different grades and ages. Tables had parent volunteers and “Ice Breaker” worksheets to help get the lunch period off to a smooth start.
Mix It Up at Lunch is an initiative of Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center founded in 1991 to stem the growth of hate. According to the Teaching Tolerance website, “(s)tudents consistently identify the cafeteria as a place in their school where divisions are clearly—and harshly—drawn. So we ask students to move out of their comfort zones and connect with someone new over lunch. It’s a simple act with profound implications that we encourage educators to include in year-round efforts to promote healthy, welcoming school environments. Studies have shown that interactions across group lines can help reduce prejudice. When students interact with those who are different from them, biases and misperceptions can fall away.”
While Mix It Up at Lunch was initially designed for kids in elementary and secondary school, nearly 50 colleges also participated in the program this year. They might learn a thing or two from local elementary school students. At Cahill, Roxy Bolle, a 6th grader, offered a bit of advice to 2nd grade student Jordyn Wilson.
“You just have to say ‘Hi,’ and maybe give them a compliment, like ‘Nice earrings.’”