Plagued by unsavory stories in American popular culture, the lunch lady has been a mocked and villainized figure for decades. Yet, as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds in real-time, lunch ladies across the country are emerging as unassuming superheroes feeding millions across the United States.
Because of school closures and an economic downturn, school food is assuming a major role in providing emergency meals for their communities. Some are doing so independently and others have partnered with local food banks, faith-based organizations, and the Red Cross. With nearly 75 million children under the age of eighteen across the country, coupled with families losing their incomes at a startling rate, more and more people are in need of food. In the first three weeks of shelter-in-place orders, sixteen million Americans filed for unemployment while in nearly the same three-week period, the Los Angeles Unified School District served five million meals to children and adults.
Yet unlike the origin stories of comic book heroes, the history of the lunch lady has been almost entirely erased. Moreover, their collective stories have fallen victim to historical amnesia. As a result, school food, as a sector, is invisible to and undervalued by society. For decades, most lunch ladies held some of the lowest paying jobs in school systems, making hourly wages with little to no benefits—creating a lasting impact on their economic and social worth. This is the underappreciated workforce that the United States now looks to for support.
More than ever, it is important to elevate the origin story of the lunch lady. As comic books have taught us, we can’t undo the past but we can learn from it as we move on to create future narratives, where lunch ladies (and gentlemen, or more gender non-conforming “food folks”) are acknowledged and respected for the essential workers that they are, during and outside of a pandemic. To bring those narratives to light, Jennifer Gaddis gives us their origin story in The Labor of Lunch: Why We Need Real Food and Real Jobs in American Public Schools (UC Press, 2019).
In her book, Gaddis addresses implicit biases the reader may hold about lunch ladies by guiding us through a richly-layered history of school food and labor. Using archival photos and first-hand stories, she connects us with narratives that have been withheld from our collective consciousness. She addresses the inequities of this work head on by laying out the historic role that racial and economic discrimination, capitalism, and patriarchy played in perpetuating stereotypes of school food service workers.
Gaddis sets the stage for the book not in faraway time or even in a cafeteria. She starts the book in 2004 with Lisa, a 48-year-old assistant cook, testifying in front of a local school board: “Good evening, distinguished board members and all in the room who have an ethical obligation to our children. I see some faces whose children I have had the honor of personally feeding. I use the word honor because it is the highest trust a parent can give, letting someone else care and nurture their children” (1). In her own words, Lisa addresses the board as an advocate and labor union member, identities not often associated with lunch ladies.
Further so, she aptly titles the first chapter of the book, “The Radical Roots of School Lunch.” This foundational section to the book disaggregates the history you may find on the internet when you search for “school lunch.” Gaddis tells a history of a movement that began half a century before the passing of the 1946 National School Lunch Act, by firmly rooting school food history alongside feminist history, calling it a “product of generations of women’s activism.” In fact, school lunch started out in the 1890s as a localized “penny lunch” program as part of a “nonprofit school lunch movement.” It was born out of a public necessity to feed extremely poor children, “not as private, gendered responsibility” (18). School lunch, along with kindergarten and public kitchens, were just some approaches advocates used to create new forms of public caregiving to support the changing roles of women during this industrializing era.
A federal policy that paves the way for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) can appear to be a win, but who is actually benefiting from the program? Gaddis examines the systemic racial inequities that excluded many populations of color under the federal school lunch program. In the chapter, “The Fight for Food Justice,” Gaddis discusses the role of the Black Panther Party in organizing local support for poor black communities whose needs were unmet by the government. In 1968, a group of Oakland mothers worked alongside the Panthers to start the very first Free Breakfast for Children Program. This program resulted in a national movement of localized expansion in poor black communities that would feed tens of thousands of poor black children across the country while exposing inequities, and demonstrating to the American public “a working example of how social reproduction could be collectivized at the neighborhood scale in a truly egalitarian fashion” (62).
In addition to social and political movements, the chronology of school food is also heavily influenced by the industrialization of food and rise of the cheap food economy, as well as the government’s role in regulating what goes into school meals. In 1981, the Reagan administration reduced the school food budget by one-third, resulting in the need to cut costs by changing regulations to include cheaper substitutes. A task force was convened to discuss cheaper alternatives to certain meal components: “Suddenly corn chips, pretzels, doughnuts, and pies could all pass as ‘bread’ in the NSLP” (98). Gaddis also describes the shifting labor of school lunch, as more central kitchen models were being constructed and for-profit Big Food factories began receiving more contracts to turn commodity foods like chicken into nuggets. These shifts led to reheating already prepared foods and diminishing a school cafeteria’s capacity to cook from scratch. This period, according to Gaddis, had a stark effect on the school food programming across the country.
Despite the challenges that exist in school food, Gaddis positions a lofty goal for the school food sector: “Empowering school kitchen and cafeteria workers to cook real food from scratch using locally sourced and school-grown ingredients can transform the entire culture of [NSLP]” (174). Rather than one-off solutions or one-size fits all approaches, Gaddis offers several examples to realize this “real food economy.” One approach is farm-to-school, by which schools can connect and buy directly from local farmers. This type of programming effectively builds relationships with food so that we know where it comes from. This requires coordinated efforts and investments: “Establishing comprehensive farm-to-school programs that combine local food procurement, school gardening, and classroom education takes significant effort that is difficult to sustain without grant funding and personal donations” (196). Identifying and working with local partners is key to making this change. Gaddis reminds us of this shared responsibility: “The NSLP is a public program. And we, the public, can reimagine and ultimately transform it into an engine for positive social and economic change” (214). We must remember that to feed children, we must also employ people to serve, cook, transport, and grow food. In effect, this would stimulate the economy, not take away from it.
Making these sweeping changes to the school food system requires a greater shift in society. Gaddis positions the notion of a real school food system into a new economy of care. How do we care about school food and the labor behind it? Gaddis reminds us that the value of school food and labor is dependent on our collective respect for it: “It’s up to us to change the paradigm. Cheapness is not synonymous with public value.” (228). Now more than ever, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, food service workers across the country need this paradigm shift as they risk their own health to feed millions of children. By valuing their labor and school food we can better support them on the frontlines of this public health crisis.
Christine Tran is a food and education advocate from South El Monte, California. She is passionate about people, places, food, and stories that connect us all. Her diverse background in education, food justice, communities, and policy has taken her across the country and around the world. As a multimedia storyteller, she aspires to spark dialogues to deepen our understanding of each other, the food we eat, and the world we share. Christine is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Washington studying Educational Leadership, Policy & Organizations. She obtained her bachelor’s degrees in Asian American Studies and English, as well as a Master of Education from UCLA. She also holds a Master of Arts in sociology from Columbia University in the City of New York.
Copyright: © 2020 Christine Tran. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.