Q&A: Jennifer E. Gaddis on school food, feminism and worker rights

When we think about school meals, we might not immediately think of feminism, workers’ rights, community organizing or curbing the power of corporations. But in Jennifer E. Gaddis’s new book, The Labor of Lunch: Why We Need real Food and Real Jobs in American Public Schools, school lunch is the framework for serious thinking about politics and people power. Gaddis makes the case that to reform school food, we need better working conditions and pay for cafeteria workers in addition to more nutritious ingredients. I asked Gaddis, an assistant professor of civil society and community studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, to discuss the pillars of her research and how school food policy should move forward.

How did the National School Lunch Program come about and who was it meant to serve?

A lot of people would say that the National School Lunch Program was created in 1946. It was meant to serve the interests of children and, in particular, middle class children really benefited the most. Commodity farmers were the second big population that it was intended to benefit. Since that legislation has been in effect, there’s been these dual priorities of safeguarding the health of the nation’s children and promoting domestic consumption of healthy food. Sometimes those things have come into tension with each other.

[My book] encourages people to realize that the NSLP didn’t appear out of thin air in 1946. It has a 60-year history prior to that, that’s really rooted in local community organizing — first at a small scale at individual schools, and then scaling up to things that were happening at the municipal level and the state level.

The first federal involvement is during the Great Depression. There’s this recognition that there are starving children and also a need to remove surplus agricultural commodities from the market. There was [a] need to find a politically, socially, and morally acceptable outlet for surplus food, and poor children really fit the bill.

How has activism intersected with the issue of school lunch? And who has led that activism?

While people don’t often think about school lunch in relation to feminism … there’s multiple instances that I chart where women’s activism becomes really, really important. A lot of women saw the direct benefit to themselves [of the school lunch program] in terms of not having to pack lunches for their kids. And then also there was this charitable vein of wanting to support kids from immigrant and working-class families and be sure they had access to affordable school lunches, and in some cases free school lunches. So, the charity piece and the self-interest piece were working alongside each other.

Women who wrote letters to elected officials were hugely influential in getting the National School Lunch Act passed. This is one of the things that was attracting tons and tons of support from all corners of American society. And women played a huge role in coordinating letter writing campaigns.

In the 1960s, there was a coalition of women who organized across lines of religion and race to form this group that did a pretty interesting community-based research project … [They] collected data that they compiled into a report called Their Daily Bread that formed this significant point of evidence for anti-poverty and anti-hunger organizations [to demonstrate that there was unequal distribution of resources across the school lunch program].

The third wave of activism that I see now [s still very much led by women, because mothers tend to be a little bit more attentive to this issue and the workforce in school lunch programs is predominantly women. The real push right now in the school lunch world is more related to farm-to-school programs and eliminating “ingredients of concern” from the supply chain.

The ‘lunch lady’ is a symbol that returns often throughout the book — but not all school cafeteria workers love that phrase. What did you learn about lunch ladies in your research?

It’s a term that I really went back and forth about. Some of the people I interviewed really embrace that term and feel a sense of pride over. Whereas other people, especially if they don’t identify as a woman or a ‘lady,’ take issue with it.

One of the reasons I decided to keep it in the book is that it’s really important to remind people how gendered this job has been historically. It plays a really important role in why the jobs are so low paid. There have been a lot of issues over time where workers have been asked to cut corners in terms of their own financial or emotional well-being for the good of the kids. Using the term “lunch lady” opens up some space to connect more explicitly to mothering and how occupations that resemble mothering tend to be some of the lowest compensated.

The caricature of the lunch lady [being mean] is really false. Even when a lunch lady does conform to this stereotype, there’s a reason. It’s a really challenging environment. I had workers talk to me about how awful they feel when they know a particular kid is going to come through the line and they as the cashier are expected to enforce a lunch-shaming policy.

Some workers feel like they have very little control over whether they’re able to care for kids. Sometimes what ends up happening is they develop a harder exterior as a way to protect themselves emotionally.

How have Big Food companies shaped and benefited from the school lunch program?

There were always ties between school food programs and food companies because schools needed to purchase food from somewhere. But there was a marked change in the 1960s … with the amount of control that big food corporations had over the policy process. As school lunch became more and more lucrative … a lot of these food industry people started paying attention to schools. They really wanted access to this new market.

A lot of schools in urban areas in particular had been built without kitchen or cafeteria facilities. So, some of these food companies that had perfected TV dinners and airline-style meal service were like, ‘Oh, you don’t have any space for cooking? We’ve got you covered.’ At the time, agricultural policy was all about figuring out how to intensify production and speed things up and be more efficient. So, [food companies] were able to present themselves as the solution to the problem.

And then once they had access, they were able to tilt food policy in their favor. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration slashed the school lunch program by about 25 percent. That caused schools to have to push even more in the direction of cheapness. The food industry was seen as a way to help schools reduce costs.

Your research shows that cafeteria workers often are on the front line of improving school food. Where are their efforts succeeding?

In some places, efforts are very highly localized and it’s just what can we do — me and the handful of other employees in this particular school — to make things better for the kids. Some of the workers that I interviewed in Connecticut, for instance, had applied for grants and were able to create a backpack program for kids at their school because they were really concerned about an increasing level of children experiencing homelessness in their district. There are also everyday small actions, like paying for a child’s meal.

Where I’ve seen things move beyond the level of individual action is in places that either have a very strong and progressive union … or if there’s a food service director who really recognizes how important workers are to the program and decides to make worker-centered reforms.

Minneapolis is an example of that. They really invested in building kitchens … and they invested in culinary training for workers. As they were building more kitchens, they were able to move more people into positions that gave them more hours. While that’s not necessarily a worker-led reform, it’s a worker-centered approach. And to be successful, it really depends on the workers starting to buy into the idea that they’re part of the real food movement, too.

What can be done at the federal level to ensure access to healthy food at all schools?

The thing that has gotten me really excited recently is a new bill that was introduced by [Sen.] Bernie Sanders and [Rep.] Ilhan Omar. Unlike some of these other responses that are about tweaking nutrition standards or telling schools not to lunch shame , they are proposing a mechanism for providing universal free school meals for all kids.

But they’re also moving beyond that to say, we need an increase in the federal reimbursement rate [for school meals]. And any school district that sources at least 30 percent of ingredients from local farms will get an additional 30 cents per meal … This bill is the first to say at a national level that we want to invest federal money in local food for schools.

I do think that there have been a lot of improvements in recent years to school lunch. There’s some really exciting activism happening in this space. It’s important to make sure that we’re celebrating the successes in changing opinions about what school lunch is and what it could be.

But we also have to recognize that there’s a lot of inequality from place to place. Some of these initiatives that are happening on the local level are important to show us what’s possible. But if the history of school lunch teaches us anything, it’s that if we aren’t investing on the federal level, then we’re going to see inequality within the program. Incremental reforms are important, but we also need to push for deeper structural reform.