Church's pizza giveaway irks school cafeteria workers


SEATTLE -- Since last fall, members of the Bethany Community Church in Seattle's Green Lake neighborhood have been handing out free slices of pizza at lunch time, but not everyone is happy with the gesture.

"It takes about 10 minutes to get rid of 40 large pizzas," said youth pastor Nick Steinloski.

Steinloski said the pizza giveaway is about connecting kids with adults who care about them.

"We are not telling them a Bible story before they get pizza," he said.

At two slices per student, serving 250 students at each school, he estimates the church spends $600 a week on pizza.

The church serves the pizza just off campus at Nathan Hale, Ingraham, and Roosevelt high schools. It's once a week, just off campus at each school. A spokeswoman for the Seattle School Districts says the church notified them of the giveaway and it was "ok" with it.

But the union representing the district's cafeteria workers is not ok with it.

"Last week we got a call from a union," said Steinloski. "They said we were taking away a job, hours from employees at school in the kitchen because kids weren't buying lunch."

He says a union representative left a voice mail on the church's answering machine claiming handing out free pizza was irresponsible and costing people who serve the food their livelihood, accusing the church of doing whatever it took to proselytize to the students.

"He said that if we stop serving them pizza, we would start serving them drugs," said Steinloski. "I felt intimidated by that message."

The business manager for the union confirmed he has complained to the church. Dave Westberg says the union figures the free pizza is replacing roughly 500 purchased meals each week, and that is equal to 20 labor hours.

Westberg says workers' jobs are based on how many meals are sold. If fewer meals are sold, fewer workers are needed to prepare them.

We asked students what they would eat if there wasn't free pizza.

"If they didn't have free pizza, I'd go home for lunch," said one Nathan Hale High School student.

"I'd buy food from the cafeteria," said another student.

Nathan Hale High School allows sophomores, juniors and seniors to leave campus for lunch.

"That's why it really doesn't make sense," said Malik Johnson, another Nathan Hale student. "Because if we can go down the street and get food from a restaurant, why can't we come out here and get free pizza that people want to give to us?"

Feeling pressure, the church will change its routine to serving free pizza after school instead of during lunch so there's no competition with lunchtime sales.

"We do care about the workers, we care about the immigrant workers and those working here at the school," said Steinloski.

Westberg says he hopes the church will adhere to its promise.

"We are presuming honesty on pastor Nick's part that they will stop serving during lunch," said Westberg. "If they don't stop we will be picketing."

For Nathan Hale junior Tajon Williams, the issue wasn't about lost jobs, it was about eating better pizza.

"If they would cook it a little better, then they would have students up there eating, you know what I'm saying?" Williams said.

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