Review: The Labor of Lunch: Why We Need Real Food and Real Jobs in American Public Schools

Chris McNutt
November 17, 2019
The Labor of Lunch by Jennifer E. Gaddis is a treatise on the United States school lunch system: its history, battle over nutritional quality, and those who are fighting to change it.

The Labor of Lunch by Jennifer E. Gaddis is a treatise on the United States school lunch system: its history, battle over nutritional quality, and those who are fighting to change it. School lunch is a perplexing thing. We tend to accept that chicken nuggets, pizza, burgers, and french toast sticks are “normal”, and that students who don’t like it should just bring their own, nutritious lunch. School lunch is the only “accepted” place where students are subjected to financial labeling and shunning. As Gaddis writes,

Math, English, and a host of other academic subjects are offered to children free of charge, but when they walk through the cafeteria doors, any facade of egalitarianism fades. No one expects a math teacher to collect children’s fees at the classroom door. Cafeteria workers, on the other hand, must sort children according to their eligibility for free, reduced-price, or paid lunches and charge them accordingly.

The work opens with an in-depth history of school lunch since the expansion of public schools in the Progressive Era. Each decade mirrors the racist, sexist, and classist spheres that fill all other facets of American life. Central to the thesis of the book, and the overall solution to the problem, is the promotion of “lunch ladies” to full-time, respected employees — which has been counteracted by the sexist view of housewives and treatment of working class women.

Early reformers in the Progressive Era saw school lunch as a social justice issue, rallying mostly women workers to build kitchens within schools that provided healthy, quality meals. Caroline Hunt, a prominent activist, emphasized the importance of these quality meals for everyone — regardless of race and class — but met resistance in a similar way to today. She met the fate of neoliberal tendencies toward “career technical education” over actual systemic solutions. Hunt was told to focus on sewing and cooking (the “career technical education” for women at the time), rather than any political economic critique.

Another Progressive Era reformer, Emma Smedley, experimented with a school cafeteria program that would “pay for itself.” She met with students and explained to them the organization’s non-profit model, which included paying school lunch employees a fair wage that mirrored teachers — they were full time staff that made everything from scratch on-site. Students were hired on a small salary to help clean and prep food. Smedley, similar to Dewey’s experiential learning ideals, wanted to integrate food across the curriculum and saw student involvement as a flourishing academic opportunity.

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Pictured: The Life and Times of An American Radical by Agnes Smedley.

Overtime though, Gaddis explains that the Progressive Era reforms lost steam — and as the 1920s came, limited economic resources meant that most new programs were formed by mothers in middle to upper class homes. Therefore, the working class was left behind; the mission proved too difficult to manage at a mass scale (similar to how systemic change is necessary in any system destined to change societal injustice.)

The 1930s saw the federal government take control of most school lunch programs. In the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration provided funds to manage healthy lunch programs (which disproportionately favored white neighborhoods — a consistent theme of school funding.) And in the 1940s, the government continued to expand with the National School Lunch Act of 1946 (NSLA), which gave the federal government the ability to fund states who managed an adequate lunch system. This, as Gaddis explains, was great in theory, but set in motion a corporate takeover of lunchrooms.

Vendors could easily produce “food” that undercut the margins of a full time staff at a school making healthier options. Poor school districts, who relied on NSLA funding, were essentially left with no choice but to accept this corporate takeover. Many pushed back, namely the Black Panther Party in the 1960s who organized free breakfast and lunch drives for the community — but at the height of the Cold War and racial tension, the government (FBI) was worried at the support the BPP was receiving. Further, many outcried at the state of school lunch, which at this point was essentially gruel.

Therefore, the 1970s saw a wave of school lunch reforms that focused on healthy eating. Yet the financial needs of such a program, plus calls for universal free lunch, were again shot down or co-opted by corporate influence and control. As Gaddis writes,

Feeding children, unlike transportation or healthcare, had long been considered a ‘women’s responsibility.’ The premise of a universally free school lunch program struck an ideological nerve in the 1970s, just as the very idea of experimental penny-lunch programs had done in the early 1900s. During both eras, feminist activists were gaining strength in numbers and challenging the assumptions of patriarchal capitalism. In its official publications, ASFSA never explicitly linked its proposal for a universally free school lunch program with the concerns of second wave feminism. If enacted, the legislation would most certainly have lessened the burden of unpaid care work for all women with school-aged children. But the white middle-class mothers who played such an important role in pressuring Congress to pass the NSLA back in 1946 didn’t take up the fight for a universally free lunch program. Instead, many of them fled the NSLP altogether as food quality declined, prices rose, and school lunch became stigmatized as ‘welfare’ food. Middle-class mothers who could afford to take on the labor of lunch increasingly opted to send their children to school with a packed lunch.

At the same time, convenience foods controlled by big business, such as frozen pizzas, prebreaded chicken patties, and “airline meals” entered the system — as they were affordable, simple options. More children could be fed for much cheaper (and students would eat the food), but the labor force deskilled and food quality declined further. There was little to no nutritional value. Now the “lunch lady” did very little actual cooking. People pushed back against this system, which led to the modern interpretation of what Gaddis calls “Real Food Lite.” It’s no longer completely unhealthy pizza…it’s just pizza with some nutritional value. Now we face even more corporate control.

The reason I explain all of this is that it’s only a surface of what Gaddis covers in The Labor of Lunch. Anyone who wants to understand the context of why lunch is the way it is should seek out and read this work. Hundreds upon hundreds of sources line an extensive review of why things are the way they are.

Yet Gaddis is hopeful that these issues will be solved, as she states:

Thousands of dedicated parents, school lunch workers, public health advocates, local food activists, and nonprofit organizations are already engaged in this work.
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Pictured: This week’s lunch menu from a local public school.

The other half of the book is dedicated to showing how certain schools, led primarily by women activists, are attempting to solve these problems. The Minneapolis Public School System incorporates farm-to-table healthy foods which are prepared mostly on-site. “Lunch ladies” are respected workers who are stationed full-time at the school. Similar to the goals of the Progressive Era, food is not only for sustenance, but a part of the curriculum.

Minneapolis incorporates “food testing” days, which consists of students trying new foods once or twice a month — with the goal of expanding the palette. Sadly, many children don’t know what “healthy food” tastes like, and it requires a lot of consistent exposure to adapt to a sustainable way of eating. The food system is driven by parent, student, and nutritionist involvement, and is part of the curriculum.

Food intelligence, although rarely brought up, is a serious issue in the United States. When corporate branding and easy-to-access unhealthy foods plague the landscape, it’s difficult for children — and parents — to navigate their options. This is especially true for those in the working class, who have less time and resources to invest in experimenting/learning healthy cooking recipes. By investing in the food curriculum, we can help families recognize the value of growing their own food, making cheap, yet nutritional recipes, and expanding palettes to appreciate non-additive foods.

However, these nonprofits and experimental school district programs can only carry their mission so far. The same neoliberal methodology that “socialism is bad” carries over to this battle. The idea of “wasting money” by providing “handouts” to students has consistently been a losing battle in our political system. And therefore the argument becomes,

…using tax dollars to build school kitchens and cafeterias was an unnecessary expense for urban school authorities to absorb when children could simply bring food from home or purchase something from a vendor. In other words, education dollars should be used to hire more teachers, reduce class sizes, and improve instructional quality, not to feed children cheap (let alone free) school lunches.

Just as SEL has become the latest fad in schools (which is also corporate-influenced. SEL was never about meditating to improve test scores, it was about eliminating the anxiety-ridden test!), lunch reform runs the risk of neoliberal influence. As outrage grows over lunch shaming and debt, as well as lunch menus rattle off McDonald’s-esque daily meals, we must remember that this issue won’t be solved without actual government funding. It’s not enough to have donations to non-profits or the facade of government concern. Without across-the-board funding, those historically disadvantaged will continue to be disadvantaged, and real change won’t occur.

And when this funding occurs, we must place the needs of children in the hands of those closest to the solution: working class women — who primarily comprise the thousands of “lunch ladies” across the United States. Many of these women understand how to solve these problems, and just require the tools necessary to do so. Many of the modern activist (and historical activist) programs are started by “lunch ladies.” And notably, when these programs do take place, it’s actually cheaper than the corporate option.

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That being said, if you’re interested in learning more about the food revolution, check out some resources Gaddis has referenced:

And if you’re interested in becoming informed on the movement, and why we’re here, I highly recommend checking out The Labor of Lunch. Personally, I’m considering using it for an upcoming school project. Why not invite students into this conversation? After all, they’re the ones most connected to this issue!

Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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