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I’ve always been perplexed by school lunch. It’s sort of taken as a part of school: a fairly bland looking, processed, mess that students deal with during the school day. Michael Moore in Where to Invade Next how ridiculous it was that the United States spends, on average, much more than other countries lunch programs, while not even serving fresh food.
It’s not uncommon to view any school’s lunch menu and see the same questionable offerings: chicken nuggets, french toast sticks, chicken sandwiches, hamburgers. And when I saw an ad for a new book, The Labor of Lunch by Jennifer E. Gaddis - I was thrilled to see an in-depth discussion on why school lunch is the way it is. It’s a chronicle of the history, social issues, and modern movement toward lunch reform.
Jennifer E. Gaddis, an assistant professor of Civil Society and Community Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Gaddis focuses on a feminist perspective of food politics, with a special focus on school lunch programs.
Chris McNutt: Hello, before we get started, I want to let you know that this podcast is brought to you by Human Restoration Project's fantastic patrons. All of this work, which includes free resources, materials, and this podcast, is available for free due to our Patreon supporters, three of whom are Tracy Smith, Joshua Sloat, and Trent M. Kirkpatrick. Thank you for your ongoing support. You can learn more about the Human Restoration Project on our website, humanrestorationproject.com. Or find us on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. Hello, and welcome to Season 3, Episode 16 of Things Fall Apart, our podcast of the Human Restoration Project. My name is Chris McNutt, and I'm a high school digital media instructor from Ohio. Today's discussion is all about school lunch. I've always been perplexed by it. It's sort of taken as part of school, this fairly bland-looking, processed mess that students eat during the school day. And I think a lot about Michael Moore in the documentary Where to Invade Next, where he shows how ridiculous it is that the United States spends, on average, more than other countries' school lunch programs while not even serving fresh food. And it's not uncommon to view any school's lunch menu and see the same questionable offerings. Chicken nuggets, French toast sticks, chicken sandwiches, hamburgers. And when I saw this new book, The Labor of Lunch, written by Jennifer E. Gaddis, I was thrilled to see this in-depth discussion on why school lunch is the way that it is. It's a chronicle of the history, the social issues, and just the modern movement of school lunch reform. Jennifer offers a complete in-depth look at what school lunch is in fantastic detail, and you can find a review of the book on our website. Further, you can support the University of California Press, which is the small publisher that supports this work, by using the promo code found in our show notes, which offers 30% off. The podcast isn't promoted, we just like the work and want to share it with people. When it comes to your work, essentially it's interesting because it's not only talking about just school lunch as a nutritional concept, but it's also talking about our economic inequalities, lunch's connection to quote unquote, women's work, because it is historically a feminist cause. And for most people, including myself, when I think of school lunch, I think about lunch as pizza, chicken nuggets, hot dogs, it's always pretty much been the same thing even when I was growing up. However, you've kind of traced the history of school lunch for really over a hundred years. So, and there's a lot of different things that go into that. So could you talk about how school lunch has been connected to both, just in general, the United States historical problems?
Jennifer E. Gaddis: Yeah, for sure. Before I dig too deeply into that, I'll just mention, I think some people don't even really realize the school lunch programs that they might see operating in their local schools are connected. Oftentimes not always, but most of the time to the National School Lunch Program, which was created in 1946. So one of the things I really wanted to do with this book is to help people understand not only the history of kind of what's happened since the 1940s, but also I wanted people to really take away this appreciation that this program didn't come spontaneously arise from nowhere, had a 50 year history that really relied on a lot of more local level organizing, and times organizing that was led by women. So I think one thing that is important to recognize is I kind of talk about school lunch through this lens of it being a feminist cause, just because it's something that if it's not taking place in schools, typically the people who would be the ones who would be preparing lunches for their kids would be women in their homes. So I think especially now as we've recognized that there's such a time scarcity for so many women who have not only joined the labor market, but who are still doing a disproportionate share of the domestic work at home, I think it's important for us to think about school lunch as an example of how in at least one point in time, we sort of succeeded as women in saying we actually want to have new kinds of public programs that collectivize the care work that we're doing in our homes and make it public instead of private. So I think that there's a number of ways that over the years, since the 1890s, when these experimental nonprofit school lunch programs first started popping up in urban areas around the country, that we can sort of see how various things like racism and patriarchal capitalism have really impacted the program and its ability to really provide maximum possible benefit to kids and workers and to the country as a whole. So a little bit more specifically, I think during the Progressive Era, so in the 1890s through the early 1900s, when these programs were first starting, they were mostly charitable lunch programs that were set up to help poor children. So there was this real concern about immigrant families in particular not being able to provide nutritious meals to their children, and there was also this concern that middle class women had, because this was kind of like a time when compulsory education was really increasing like in the US. So it was, I think, this concern about like, oh, you know, our kids are in school all day, they need food, how do we make sure that they're fed? And there were these concerns that are very much, I think, similar to today, in that individual women were concerned with, okay, how do I make sure that I'm packing a healthy lunch and that it looks good, and it tastes good, and it like kind of travels in a way that makes sure that all the different components aren't just like mixing together or drying out or kind of becoming gross, you know, over the four or five hours that it might be sitting out before kids are going to eat it. So those same kind of concerns that parents might have today when packing lunches, I think were present then. And similarly, there were a lot of concerns around this issue of food safety, like how do we know that even like, the flour that we're buying to make bread or the bread maybe that we're buying from the bakery isn't using flour that has been cut with sawdust. So there were these real concerns about like, what sort of additives or just in general kind of fraudulent practices might have been used at the time by the food industry to try to cheapen food in a way that would allow these companies essentially to profit more. So I think it's important to recognize that in the early years of this program, there were these real concerns about really this idea of trust within the food system, because I think that that's actually something that's really motivating a lot of contemporary school food reform efforts is this idea of, well, these big food companies have made chicken nuggets and pizza that has tons of preservatives and additives and things of that nature. So one of the strongest trends right now is this notion of what people sometimes refer to as real food in schools. So this idea of cooking from scratch with more basic ingredients versus reheating these like processed factory made foods. So those same concerns were there a hundred years ago, which for me is like just this totally shocking thing to uncover. But I think at the same time, there were these sort of darker strands of what then was referred to as Americanization. So because schools were a place where you could reach a lot of people at once, there were these ideas that there's kind of a particular way of eating that is American and it's superior to like more so like I would say like foodways of immigrants. So it was really this idea that there's this particular kind of white way of eating like white Anglo-Saxon Protestant and this very white way of behaving. And there were some lunch programs at the time that really in order to kind of curry favor with administrators who maybe really liked this idea of Americanization, like linked their school lunch programs very closely to this idea because they really needed sort of whatever they could to convince people that these lunch programs were a good idea. So I think that that's kind of like part of the sort of darker side. And then from the 1930s through the 1960s, I think one of the things we really see is that federal support for these nonprofit school programs really disproportionately flowed to white middle-class Americans, which is true of a lot of the federal policies that helped build the racial wealth gap that we see today. And then during the late 1960s, a lot of anti-poverty groups and activist organizations and again, women who kind of participated in these women's clubs were very instrumental in uncovering and publicizing and politicizing the structural racism and economic discrimination that had really existed in the school lunch landscape during that time. They were able to win a right to free lunch in the early 1970s for poor children, and they were able to get some sort of kind of federal national standard for what actually it means to be poor. But I think one of the things that we see kind of happening at that point is there's this as more poor people are actually served by the program, the food quality quickly plummeted and school lunch began to be really stigmatized as welfare food. And from that point, I think when it became a lot more sort of racially and economically coded, there were a lot of middle-class and upper middle-class families who started to opt out of the program and instead look for alternatives, whether it be packing lunches for their kids or purchasing things on the a la carte line that were different from the federal school lunch. So when I grew up in the late 1980s and 1990s, when I was in school, I think there was a really huge difference between kids who qualified for free introduced price lunch and those who didn't. And it became really obvious to see this kind of segregation, like just spatially in cafeterias. And I think as more and more middle-class and upper middle-class families really didn't see their children being served by this program, it became an easier political target. And one of the things that I think I certainly didn't know when I was a kid but came to appreciate as I was doing this research is that in 1981, the Reagan administration basically cut the budget for school lunch by about 25%. So if I had any questions about why school lunch looked the way that it did when I was a kid, I think that's definitely a part of the answer. And I think that I was fortunate in that I grew up in a household where my parents had the economic ability to provide a different kind of lunch for me if I wasn't happy with what existed in the school cafeteria, but that's a luxury that a lot of families don't have. So I think it's just really important that when we're thinking about these kind of policy changes and this arc of history that we're really thinking about the people who really are dependent on this program and recognizing that they too deserve a really healthy and just genuinely positive lunch experience versus the kind of shame and sort of cast offs of this is good enough, but it's not great.
CM: School lunch has become something that's so status quo and something that's so commonplace that we don't really even question it anymore. Like I was doing research over this to throw it into an article I was writing, including your work in there. And I was like, well, let's figure out what's on the lunch menu at the school down the street. And then I was like, well, is it the same in Iowa or in California or wherever I Google? And it's all the exact same foods no matter really where I look. It's always the stereotypical like I remember from when I was in school, it's like the little wrapper kind of like chicken sandwich that's just two pieces of bread and a piece of chicken, like very breaded chicken. Sometimes even just like they know it's not going to be good. So that's things like the sloppy salad or like these like very non appetizing sounding foods.
JG: It's funny that you bring that up because I do think that there's this kind of weird phenomenon with school lunch menus where I think you're absolutely right that when you read different menus, they might sound oftentimes like very much the same. But one of the things I learned in going around to a lot of different school kitchens and cafeterias is that you can't always like tell exactly like how good the food is from a nutritional standpoint or from like a taste and appearance standpoint based on the menu because there's like so many things that have just been sort of coded as like, this is what school lunch is like this is food, but it might actually be like, in one district, a super highly processed chicken nugget that maybe has a lot of chemicals that I personally wouldn't want to be feeding children. And then in a different district, it might be that they're actually using whole muscle meat instead of chopped and formed meat, and that it doesn't actually have any kinds of additives or fillers that it's what people would refer to as being clean label. So it's hard to tell sometimes when you're just looking at the menu. So you kind of have to do like this deeper digging to understand like, what's the food philosophy of the particular school? So are they using language surrounding clean labels? Are they talking about what people sometimes refer to as ingredients of concern? So things like high fructose corn syrup and artificial additives and talking about removing those from the ingredients and the foods that they're purchasing for the schools? Are they talking about a farm to school program? Because there are actually a lot of I think improvements in schools. So it's important to recognize even I think from the time that I was in school versus now, even though I think that there's still a lot of problems with school lunch that we need to address, the actual nutritional content has gotten a lot better since the enactment of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. So that went into effect in 2012. And one of the big things that it did was it really increased the amount of whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables in schools. So it's not to say that like, the menus aren't still really problematic, but I just kind of wanted to flag that it's a little bit more complex and in general, things have actually gotten better.
CM: It's actually really interesting to know how complex it really is. Like I mean, your work has like hundreds and hundreds of sources, like it's incredibly complex to try to decipher everything. And it's really interesting to note that the things that you're talking about in this book, it's the same as what's going on across the entire country, no matter what time period you're looking at. And as you were talking about just now, a lot of the arguments of the past on the exact same as the arguments that are being made in this moment. Like for example, there's a part where you're talking about how Caroline Hunt, who was a child rights activist, she was a feminist, she talked about social justice. And particularly when it came to school lunch, she understood that lunch is more of a social justice issue than anything else, as in it's important that the poor have the same opportunities of the rich when it comes to eating a healthy, sustainable meal. The kind of argument going on at the time was, which is the exact same argument that's going on now, is that when you are trying to feed everyone in this manner, well, first off, I guess the argument today would be that it's socialist as it was in the 60s, even though the whole concept of the school itself is socialist if we want to get into semantics. But there's also the idea of like, well, why don't you just bring your own lunch? Or why would we spend tax money on lunches when teacher class sizes are so large? Things like that. And what really stuck out to me more than anything else was that she, Caroline Hunt, was basically disparaged by higher ed people in a very neo-liberal way. Like they basically said, why are you focusing on social justice when it's really a issue of teaching them sewing or how to cook, or like basically career readiness at that time period for women. Or even now, there's the concept of schools are more focused on this idea that you need to be college ready or career ready, which in my opinion is a neo-liberal coding. When you say that, you're basically saying we need to drill students to be college ready in, in my opinion, inhumane style AP classes instead of focusing on a child's wellbeing first and then worrying about college and career second. They tend to go hand in hand if you do the first thing. So that's kind of a very roundabout way of asking, what are your thoughts on this concept of career and college readiness and how do you see that factoring into the school lunch issue?
JG: Yeah, I think that's a really interesting question. And the first thing I actually want to flag is that Caroline Hunt was the very first professor in the department where I currently am at UW Madison. So she was the first home economics professor that we had, I think in 1903 is when she started, included her story in the book is because I find that so many of my students, so I'm now in a small department called civil society and community studies, which is part of the school of human ecology. And I think so many of my students have this idea, if they have any idea whatsoever of what home economics is, what they think of is exactly those kinds of like manual skills. So cooking and sewing and cooking is generally thought of as like, oh, you know, you open a box and maybe you add an egg. That's kind of like, you know, what you would have learned to do in a lot of home economics classes, if they were sponsored by any kind of food company or if your school got any kind of, you know, resources from those kinds of companies. So it's really important for me to make sure that they understand that home economics as it was originally envisioned by the field's early founders was very much motivated by this idea of how do we actually work together to promote the social good for everyone versus this idea of how do we just make household labor more efficient. But there was always this little bit of tension between, well, on the one hand, it's actually important for us to bring this additional value, like to make people understand that household labor is actually important, but on the other hand, like we exist within like a system that has assigned the majority of that labor to people who identify as women. So if we want women to have more power in the political and economic sphere, then we have to find a way to actually reduce the amount of time that they're spending on these things. So even this idea of how do we make household labor more efficient, part of it initially had this kind of political bent to it in terms of thinking about how do we actually make space for women to participate in things outside of the home. So I think that as far as this kind of current career readiness, college readiness movement goes, I think that it's really preparing people to fit within an existing system and particularly to be workers within a capitalist society that's oftentimes quite oppressive and exploitive of people who have limited power within that system instead of preparing kids to build the futures that they actually want to live in. So I kind of see the type of educational work that Caroline Hunt was doing where she was really trying to get people to understand the power of their collective wealth. So doing things like staging the boycotts of companies that maybe had bad labor or environmental practices, or she was also teaching people how to do what we might now call citizen science. So testing water quality and stuff like that around Wisconsin and asking them to be involved in the pure milk movement, so making sure that milk didn't have various kinds of things added to it or that it was sanitary. So she was really trying to help people develop skills where they could participate in not only voicing what kind of political and economic systems they wanted to live in, but also have some additional layer of transparency and accountability. So I think that within this idea of career readiness and college readiness today, it has the same kind of disempowering effect of really teaching people that what you need to do is fit within this existing system, because this is always how it's going to be, and what you need to do is to find a way to kind of succeed within it. When I think what we really need to do is to be paying a lot more attention to not just these very short-sighted ideas of what creates value in a person's life or economic value in a society, but to instead think more in the long term and from a more holistic standpoint about what people's potential might be in really making the world a better place versus just profiting corporations.
CM: I love the fact that that is kind of the underlying idea when it comes to a book that's about school lunch. Not to downplay the whole point of the book, but it's interesting the underlying idea is really a critique of society in general, and all the different issues that go into especially America with this neoliberal, corporatist, racist, sexist, et cetera, society, and trying to find ways in order to fix that. And kind of the solution that you offer, or I guess the thesis of the book, gets into promoting the work of women, particularly lunch ladies, which is one of my standout points of the book, is where you talk about how many lunch ladies like the terminology lunch lady, even though it might be seen at first as kind of a demeaning term because of how it tends to be portrayed. I also love the fact that men are starting to be called lunch laddies, which I think is brilliant. I absolutely love that. But I mean, when we want to promote women as a lunch lady, we want lunch ladies to have this power in forming their own school lunches. There is that stereotype of, I think of like the Simpsons or any cartoon where the lunch lady tends to be kind of like a non-socially acceptable, I don't know if it's the right word, but they're portrayed in a very negative light, which leads to us being able to easily critique lunch ladies as not being like a legitimate worker or not be a whole person or not really be someone who knows what they're doing. So how can then educators counteract that? Because what you're talking about in the book is that it couldn't be further from the truth that lunch ladies actually do have the capability of order to change the system.
JG: Yeah. I think that there's a few things that are important for people. Well, I'll mention a few kind of concrete ideas that people can engage in this issue, but I think as kind of background knowledge, there's some important things to recognize that it might look today as if this job has been de-skilled, especially if we're thinking about specifically the job as something that involves cooking. But I think that one of the things that the book really tries to show is how this really happens not because people who are involved in school food service and specifically lunch ladies wanted it to, but it was kind of the influence of a lot of these big food companies and the extreme financial pressures that local food service departments were under that really led to this shift away from cooking from scratch to just reheating factory-made food. So I think that it's important to understand not only that this kind of happened over time and really had a certain politics behind it, but also that the cooking side of things and even like the serving side of things is only one aspect of the work that school cafeteria workers do. So I, in the book, try to talk about this through the lens of care. So I think that it's important for us to understand that they're actually part of our public care infrastructure and they're not only providing direct care to students in terms of providing for their physical and emotional needs, and I say emotional in that it can be anything as simple as knowing the kids' names and being kind to them when they walk through the lunch line to something that's a lot more complex than that. Like I actually had workers who I interviewed who would tell me that they became really close to certain students that they fed on a daily basis and those students would confide in them, not their teachers, not their principals, because they were seen as kind of an adult figure but non-threatening. So I actually had some workers who would tell me that it was a very hard job emotionally because they would actually learn about kids who were experiencing homelessness or kids whose families were broken up through incarceration or things of that nature, and they would really try to be there for the students, but it was something that, for them, it took emotional labor to do that, right? And then I think beyond the sort of direct care providing physical and emotional needs for the kids, there's also all this work that goes into maintaining the physical space of the cafeteria, and in particular, I saw a lot of instances of workers, if they had any kind of agency whatsoever in the school food environment, they would oftentimes decorate the cafeteria or do other things to try to make it feel like less of an institutional space for the kids that they're feeding. So I think that those are two elements of what they work on, and then the third is something that people sometimes refer to as community mothering. It's basically this idea of really understanding. So first of all, a lot of these workers live in the communities that they're serving, so they might have grown up with the parents or relatives of the kids that they're feeding, so they oftentimes will know social relationships, and they might also know who's friends with whom and what's going on in the broader community. So I think that they're able to play this important role of understanding the broader kind of social context that kids are living in and helping with maintaining different kinds of relationships over time. And in particular, I think one of the relationships that exists more on the communal level that I think they're really important in cultivating is, on the one hand, this idea of kids actually learning more about where their food is coming from. So school districts have farm to school programs. One of the aspects of community mothering that I think is really important is helping kids understand their social relationships to the farmers and farm workers and people who are working in food processing plants who are actually doing work to grow and prepare the food before it arrives in the cafeterias. And I think another aspect of that community mothering that's really important is them also really helping kids to understand. I have a second point, but maybe I can just stop with that point.
CM: Well, I was going to say that the thing that I thought was really interesting that might fit into that is that concept of, I don't know the exact term, but it's basically like food testing. So like exposing students to new foods like once or twice a month with the goal of like, kind of like, I imagine if I would have grown up eating quinoa, I might like it now because I think it's disgusting.
JG: Oh, right. So that actually, thank you, that jogged my memory because what I was going to say is that I think that another piece of what they're doing is they're able to, for instance, like when taste testing is going on in schools or when menu items are changing or even when menu items look the same, like it appears like, oh, they're just still serving hamburgers. But in reality, if they're switching from like a pretty status quo hamburger patty to a clean label hamburger patty that doesn't have, like pink slime was like a big issue in schools for a while. So they can actually communicate those changes to the people around them who might have kids in the schools. And I think because they work on the front lines of school food service and they're also like really considered like members of the working class, they I think have more credibility when they describe what's going on in the schools versus like if parents get some sort of like letter sent home from like the principal or from like even like the director or manager of the school food program. I think hearing from frontline workers and more of this kind of one on one word of mouth way has a lot of power and getting parents to trust that something different is actually happening in their schools.
CM: A quick reminder that the Human Restoration Project's work is brought to you by our Patreon supporters. As we continue to grow and build a progressive education hub, we need more supporters to support our growing infrastructure costs. By contributing $3 a month, you can help spark this initiative and make it come to life. Visit us on our website at humanrestorationproject.org to learn more. I feel like at least in the circles that I'm involved in, this issue is kind of unexplored. Like as in it, there's a lot of really great work going on around the country, but I don't feel like I hear too much about it. Like for example, like you specifically talk about Minneapolis public schools. And as you mentioned, they have farmed a table, they have all this great information on their website about what they do. Like food has become part of the curriculum, which is a goal that people have had now for over a hundred years dating back to the progressive era, as you talk about in your work. Where would people go in order to learn more about how to change their own school's lunch program if it's not up to the standards that they would like it to be?
JG: Yeah. So there's a few places that I would specifically recommend. So a nonprofit called the Chef Anne Foundation has a really great parent advocacy toolkit. So if you just go to the Chef Anne Foundation, you can find that and it kind of walks you through like how to learn about what's going on at the local level and how your local program fits within this broader kind of state and federal level infrastructure and gives you like very specific advice for how to move forward and trying to make changes in your own local district. I'm actually building out a community reading guide that will be up on my website within the next couple of weeks and that will have some suggested activities for organizing. So I'm drawing on some of the stuff that Chef Anne Foundation has already put together, but kind of adding some additional things that relate more to the labor and community organizing side of things. And just in response to your earlier question too about what educators can do, I think supporting like the workers labor struggles and talking to people about how this work actually matters and specifically sort of modeling to kids that this is respected work, I think are all really important things and educators and parents and kind of anyone who's interested in this issue, I think can play a really important role in making things better by advocating for a higher reimbursement rate and other kinds of changes within the Child Nutrition Act reauthorization, which should be happening in the next year or so. So I think that paying attention to what's happening at the policy level is a really important thing, but I recognize that it can be really confusing for people. So what I would recommend is there's actually a nonprofit organization called Food Corps that really first became known for its work in doing food education. So Food Corps is actually sort of linked to AmeriCorps and they have several hundred service members in schools around the country who do a lot of this like taste education and other kinds of things like that with kids, but they've recently sort of branched out to where they're moving beyond just this like direct service model to devoting a portion of their time to really thinking about systems change. And on their website, they have a really helpful resource. It's their Policy Action Center and you can go to that section of their website and actually sign up for policy alerts. And I think that their team there does a really, really great job of making like this kind of complex legislative landscape really digestible for people and the actions that they suggest I think are very easy to follow. So for people who want to get involved in more of the federal level, like policy advocacy side of things, I think that's a really great place to start. And then the last piece that I would recommend is, especially for people who are interested in more of the local food side of things, the National Farm to School Network has a lot of really great resources on their website about how to start a farm to school program if there isn't one at your school or how to maybe access additional resources if you're trying to grow like what your farm to school program looks like. I would say with any of these changes though, one of the things that is really important to keep in mind is that you might face a fair amount of resistance, but it's important to understand that resistance kind of comes from different sources. Sometimes it's that people feel constrained and like they don't actually have the resources to make change, or like, oh, these parents are going to care about this for an issue that affects their kids, and as soon as their kids graduate in a year or two, they won't be involved anymore and we're going to be stuck with this stuff. So I think it's really important to kind of build a base of interested parents and community members who are really willing to work on this in the longer term, because there's some changes that I think can be made more in the short term and other things that really are about longer term planning. So I think that it's really important to just approach this whole issue as if it's really a partnership between people in civil society and the school district itself. I think that sometimes I've seen these kind of reform efforts not go so well when the people who are working in the school food service department feel just like attacked or like people don't appreciate that they're really maybe trying to do a good job with limited resources. So I think understanding first kind of what the situation looks like in school is really a good way to kind of build some good faith.
CM: It really is a systems issue rather than a person's fault. There's so much going on, especially once you get into how the regulation works and how the corporate connections work and just all the little tiny things you have to think about when doing this, it's no wonder that it functions at all, given how complex it is.
JG: But actually, can I add one thing to that? So you did jog my memory about something in that, yes, it's very complex, but I think one really simple thing that parents can do that they don't often think about is being really strategic about expressing what they want the school lunch program to look like and then rewarding the school district when it starts to make those changes. And what I mean by that is that a lot of people have started to say, well, we want food in schools to be more scratch cooked, we want it to be more culturally appropriate, we want it to use more locally sourced ingredients. And I think that when districts start to make those sorts of changes, even if their menus might not be totally perfect, it's really important for families who might be opting out of the program to start opting back in. And I think that one thing that's important to recognize is that there's about 30 million kids who participate in the school lunch program every day and another 20 million who don't participate. And the bulk of those 30 million are kids who qualify for free or reduced price lunch. It's not to say that some of the 20 million wouldn't also be eligible, but the vast majority of those kids are opting out because they have some sort of economic resources that are beyond those of the 30 million. So I think that it's really important to try to get some of those 20 million kids to opt back in because the way that school lunch finances work is that you really need high levels of participation in order to enable a school district to continue to make positive changes. So one of my favorite examples of that actually comes from Austin Independent School District in Texas, and their school food program has done a lot of really wonderful stuff to improve. They passed something recently called the Good Food Purchasing Program that not only looks at the environmental impact and local economic impact of purchasing, but also looks at workers' rights and nutrition and animal welfare. So it's more of this kind of holistic framework for how to think about starting to maximize the public value of purchasing food for public institutions like schools. So they've done a lot of really great stuff to change what the food looks like, but they still have, and they actually have a number of schools in the district where all kids get free lunch through something called the Community Eligibility Provision, but they still have about 50% of kids who opt out of their lunch program. So their food service director actually went on the local news at the beginning of the school year and said, hey, for all of you who are packing lunches for your kids, I want you to know that if you were to let your kids participate in the school lunch program one time per week, I could afford to serve grass-fed beef in all the cafeterias. If you were to let them opt in two times per week, I could afford to serve organic produce. If you were to let them opt in three times per week, I could afford organic milk. So I think that it's important for people to understand that those kinds of quality improvements really depend on them sort of opting back into the system to fix it. The only caveat that I would give there is that it's really challenging for families that are close to the poverty line and close to even the 185% level of poverty line, which is like the cutoff for a reduced price lunch, because those families, they can pay 40 cents for their kids' lunches, but if they don't qualify for reduced price lunch, they have to pay the full price and that full price is set by local school districts. So on average, it's between two to three dollars, but some places charge a lot more than that. I was actually just talking to one of my students here at UW Madison, who's from New Jersey, and she told me that her school lunches cost $5.85. So she said that her family never participated, not because she didn't think the school lunch was good enough, but because they couldn't afford to pay that much for three kids every day. So she just bought a sandwich. So I think that it's important for us to, I think on the one hand, move to a universal free model of school lunch, but then to make sure that once that's something that's available to families, that families, even if they have the economic ability to opt out, that they're instead opting in, but then holding the district and the federal government accountable for what they want those lunch programs to actually look like.
CM: It's very interesting how economies of scale work, where if people opt in, they can't afford those different things. It makes sense, but I guess I didn't really think about it. I mean, realistically, in order to make this work at a federal level, the government has to really go all in to make sure that everyone has adequate funding or else you're going to run into the exact same situation that has happened in the past, which is the rich kids get the solutions and then everyone else gets left behind over time because it's just not sustainable without government federal funding. And in order to make that happen, you talk about how it can't be piecemealed. You can't just make a little tiny change and hope that that really makes a big shift. And I think about the debates going on in this country with healthcare and education and all these other serious, mostly economic problems between rich and poor that occur. What are your hopes for the widespread changes of school lunch? And do you see that eventually spreading to things like, I mean, it's not really brought up a lot, but like the concept of universal breakfast or other things that would help those, especially in low income communities, have access to healthy food at school?
JG: Yeah, I think that's a great question. And one thing I'll say is that, so I basically finished the book in February of 2019 and so much has happened since then. It's really exciting to me and I didn't get to talk about it in the book, obviously, but I think that there's been this huge shift in the amount of attention that policymakers are giving this issue of universal free school meal programs. And I think a big thing that's fueling that is all of the kind of public outrage surrounding this practice that people refer to as lunch shaming. So for those who don't know what that is, it's basically when children accrue lunch debt, so when they don't pay their lunch bill over a period of time in order to kind of get their caretakers to pay up, schools might use different tactics like serving a cold cheese sandwich or dumping like a kid's lunch tray, or it used to be that sometimes they would also use like hand stamps or other kinds of like visual markers or in some school districts they also tell kids essentially that they can't participate in extracurricular activities like prom or things like that if they have lunch debt. So I think that that issue, and particularly how social media has sort of shown some of these shaming tactics, has really elevated this issue. And so there's actually been, I think, a really positive and exciting policy development in the last month. So Senator Bernie Sanders and Congressperson Ilhan Omar from Minnesota, the two of them actually just recently introduced this thing called the Universal School Meals Program Act, and what I really love about it is that it moves beyond just this idea of universal school meals, so including breakfast and lunch and a snack, to actually say, you know, that's something that we need to do to just make sure that all kids have healthy food and that no one experiences stigma, and we actually start to create the conditions for school cafeterias to feel like inclusive spaces and to actually engage in the educational side of food and nutrition, but we want to move beyond that. So in this legislation, a couple of the things that they propose that I think would make just a world of difference are increasing the reimbursement rate. So they're, I think, proposing an increase in about 30 or 40 cents per meal, which I think would make a big difference in terms of what workers are able to make and what sort of things schools are able to do with their supply chains as well in terms of promoting equity and making sure that food chain workers, who are some of the poorest workers in the country are actually starting to earn better wages and have better working conditions, but they also have this stipulation that I think is amazing, where they're saying that any school district that sources at least 30% of their ingredients from local sources would get an additional 30 cents reimbursement from the federal government per meal. So it's the first thing that I've seen would sort of recognize that the kind of grants that the US Department of Agriculture currently provides for farm to school programs tend to be more about planning and kind of setting up infrastructure, and they're not really any kind of sustained incentive to continue this kind of purchasing, and they don't provide any kind of cost offset to making this investment in good and fair food. So I love that this bill is linking these different aspects of food justice together, both for the kids and for the workers who feed them, and I think it's also really using our public school programs in a way that we should use them, which is basically to start creating the kinds of economic and ecological changes that we need to make happen. So I love that they're actually trying to use public money to sort of drive this type of sustainability transition. So I think if people can support that bill, that would make a huge difference.