'The Labor Of Lunch': What's Really Wrong With America's School Lunch Program

by Karen Johnson
Originally Published: 
Courtesy of Jennifer E. Gaddis

If you have school-aged children, chances are you have opinions on their school lunch choices. Maybe your kids love what the school offers for “hot lunch” (I have one kids who buys it everyday). Maybe they think it’s gross. Maybe you don’t approve of the weekly chicken nugget/pizza/hamburger rotation or you’re frustrated that kids aren’t offered enough fresh fruits and veggies.

If you’ve been inside different schools, whether as a student, parent, teacher, or staff, you know that the lunch programs in this country vary. Some schools have beautifully bright, clean cafeterias and kids are offered fresh salad bars and organic fruit. Other schools have drab cafeterias with peeling paint, exhausted and overworked cafeteria staff feeding our kids, and lunches that consist of cold sandwiches and a spoonful of mush on their tray.

Like many aspects of American education, our nation’s school lunch program needs a major overhaul. The Labor of Lunch: Why We Need Real Food and Real Jobs in American Public Schools by Jennifer E. Gaddis tells us how we can do it, addressing the two primary issues that far too many of our schools face—lack of proper nutrition and understaffed and underpaid cafeteria workers.

One such worker is Lisa, a 48-year old assistant cook in New Haven, CT, who tells her story of working for 16 years as a “lunch lady” in the city’s foodservice department at the opening of The Labor of Lunch. She, like many cafeteria employees across our nation, truly cares about the kids she serves. But because of poor working conditions and lack of proper management, her job suffers, which means the kids suffer.

Courtesy of Jennifer E. Gaddis

“My coworkers and I, at immense personal cost, have attempted to maintain standards and keep the children from being affected, including working extra hours without pay. But we are wearing down quickly under a corporate management mentality, with wages that are not in keeping with the cost of even getting to work, let alone feeding our own families,” Lisa stated at a Board of Education meeting, on behalf of herself and her other union members.

Lisa also goes on to express her disapproval in the school hawking “new and enticing” extras to kids who can afford to pay for them, such as brand-name chips, drinks, and candy. And the kids on the free and reduced-lunch program receive food that, according to Lisa, is not of “decent quality.”

Lisa’s story is similar to the story of cafeteria workers (often female, and often called “lunch ladies”) across America. They care about the kids in their school, but they aren’t given the proper amount of hours, resources, or pay to do their jobs well. Much like we expect of our teachers, we also expect that maternal guilt to kick in and drive cafeteria staff like Lisa to go above and beyond, using their own income and time, to ensure kids get what they need.

Gaddis asserts in The Labor of Lunch that true change will only occur if schools are able to embrace a “new economy of care.” What does that mean? Well, to start, we need to undo the damage the Trump administration did in 2018 as they rolled back the nutritional upgrades contained in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA) in their attempt to make school lunch “great again.”

“This reversal sacrificed children’s health and well-being for political gain and funneled school lunch dollars to Big Food companies that sell cheap, processed foods instead of using public dollars to support diverse community food economies,” Gaddis explains.

An “economy of care” means two things, Gaddis explains to Scary Mommy:

– universal, free, eco-friendly school lunch program that dishes up healthy, tasty, culturally appropriate food to all kids

– better wages and working conditions for the millions of low-wage food chain workers who grow, harvest, process, distribute, prepare, serve, and clean-up after the meals that kids eat at school.

Courtesy of Jennifer E. Gaddis

So, basically, good nutrition for our kids and the ability to pay their bills and feed their own families for cafeteria workers. Why isn’t this already the norm?

The problem is that, too often, attempts to “fix” the school lunch program or make it “great again” don’t take into account the cafeteria staff—the human beings feeding our children, helping them open their milks and wipe ketchup off their faces. These are the people who might notice the child sitting alone or not eating and who needs someone to stoop down and see if they are okay.

What do they take into account? Profit. And nothing else. Which is the opposite of “caring” for today’s kids and the school staff who feeds them.

But, Gaddis says, when “cheap” is the way to go, the impact is felt everywhere.

“The cheap, factory-farmed, and industrially manufactured foods that make up the core of the ‘standard American diet’ are making us sick — so much so that treating preventable dietary diseases has become a multibillion dollar industry,” she says. “Cheap production practices contribute to climate change, which threatens our very survival on the planet. And cheap pay traps millions of families in poverty—including those of many school food service workers who struggle to make ends meet.”

“Cheap” isn’t just a synonym for low cost, Gaddis explains in Labor of Lunch. It is the guiding political and economic philosophy, business strategy, and consumer expectation that shapes our everyday lives—one that has had disastrous effects on the healthfulness of school lunches and the wider world.

Cheap isn’t better. It’s worse on many levels.

“Further entrenching the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) into a cheap food economy that prevents lunch ladies from cooking healthy, fresh food for America’s children is not the way to make school lunch great,” Gaddis states.

Her book also addresses the lack of value placed on cafeteria staff is because this job is largely occupied by women and is seen as “women’s work” in much the same was as doing the laundry, feeding the children at home, helping them with their homework, managing their logistical and transportation needs, and worrying about their futures. This is all “care work” that is done out of love and duty, and is unpaid.

That same patriarchal mindset carries into our schools, as “lunch ladies” often care for our children out of love and duty, and are paid poorly or not at all. Once again, women are expected to pick up the slack, sacrifice their own well-being, health, and income. And many of them do, because they actually do care about these kids. But what about their own kids at home? And what about their own mental and physical health?

The Labor of Lunch introduces a few basic concepts that could improve the extremely broken system we are currently operating under:

– Invest in universal care. (This means all students get the same healthy lunch choices, regardless of where they fall on the free and reduced lunch program scale. Many schools across the nation have already started this, offering free breakfast and lunch to everyone.)

– Empower our youth and get them involved with hands-on education on food and nutrition.

– Build school-community kitchens (i.e. a “public” kitchen that both the schools and community can use to ensure that not only are students fed, but also the elderly and others in need).

– Bridge gaps and form alliances between union like UNITE HERE with teachers, other school staff, and consumers across the food chain to ensure that all who care for our kids are properly cared for themselves.

What else can we do directly, right now? Well, as any social justice advocate would tell you, oftentimes the most effective change happens at the local level. “The Chef Ann Foundation has a fantastic parent advocacy toolkit for those looking to change what their own school lunch programs look like,” Gaddis tells us. Advocating for change at the national level, however, is also crucial, so she also recommends reading about the work FoodCorps is doing and signing up for policy alerts via their policy action center.

Here’s the bottom line: We need to shift our priorities from “cheap” to what is actually the best investment for our children’s future. And the best long-term investment is this: better wages and working conditions for women like Lisa, as well as real, nutritious, locally sourced food for our kids.

Editors received a free copy of “Labor of Lunch: Why We Need Real Food and Real Jobs in American Public Schools.” All opinions are our own.

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