“Lunch lady code” dictates that you feed hungry kids regardless of the circumstances. Heather Hillenbrand, a public school cafeteria worker and union leader in Akron, Ohio, explained this to Jacobin, noting that she and her coworkers find ways to feed students seconds, even when bureaucracy, supply chain issues, staffing shortages, and the school administration are working against them.
Mary Dotsey, a food service specialist in Indian River County School District in Florida, described processing the lunch numbers of children who she knows brought packed food so her program can claim USDA reimbursement for feeding needy children two meals. “I just really care more about the kids than I do about the politics of worrying about pennies and dimes and rolls and pieces of pizza and milk.”
Contrary to the movie trope of the ornery lunch lady, cafeteria workers tend to be profoundly caring people with a passion for feeding and nurturing students. Hillenbrand told Jacobin that many kids in her district “desperately need” the food she prepares, since “school to them isn’t just where you learn — it’s where you get your basic needs met.”
Tiffany Green-Heyward, a cafeteria team leader in Plainfield School District in New Jersey, acknowledged that “it’s a lot of work. You definitely have to be dedicated to it.” When it comes to motivation, though, Green-Heyward is clear: “It’s the smiles for me.”
But smiles don’t pay the bills. And the tremendous value cafeteria workers find in the work of nourishing children is not reflected in school nutrition budgets and employee paychecks. Consequently, districts and their contractors have struggled to staff school cafeterias for decades, long before COVID-19 turned them into high-risk locations for a generally older workforce.
This school year has seen many stories of kids missing needed meals because cafeterias are severely understaffed, as workers fall ill or simply reach a breaking point. Green-Heyward said she feels “burned out” by the combination of demanding work, low pay, and lack of recognition. “I still love what I do. But I don’t think I’m gonna be here much longer.”
Public education advocates rightly point out that teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions. Just so, cafeteria staff’s working conditions are students’ eating conditions. The same problems that cause hungry kids to go without fresh, nutritious school food result in cafeteria workers being unable to afford their health care costs or take a day off. In order to fix these problems, we need to address a national school meal program that is both chronically underfunded and thoroughly dominated by corporate interests.
“It’s Almost Like They’re Keeping People Poor for a Reason”
Before COVID-19 disrupted learning arrangements, close to 15 million students were eating school breakfast each day and roughly 30 million were eating school lunch. The vast majority of these children were poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Serving up to 58 percent of students’ daily nutrients, cafeteria staff make learning and healthy development possible by providing balanced meals to kids who otherwise might not get them. The stakes of this work, in other words, could not possibly be higher.
Most of the food schools offer is “heat-and-serve,” meaning it’s not cooked from scratch. But Heather Hillenbrand, who feeds up to eight hundred students each day for $14.25 an hour, notes that “the scale of it is enormous.” Cafeteria work entails a long list of swiftly moving logistical parts as well as physical labor. Lunch ladies are required to stand for four hours at a time with no break and, in Hillenbrand’s words, handle “hazardous activities like lifting very heavy things above my head when they’re like 420 degrees.”
And then there’s the caring work of making sure kids are okay. Mary Dotsey said she brings in her own money to ring up extra milks for her “babes,” many of whom are homeless.
Food Service Area vice president for her CWA local, Dotsey fundraises among her colleagues for students who need baseball money: “Some kids need a hand up. Not a handout, but a hand up.”
In return, cafeteria staff bring home some of the lowest earnings of the generally underpaid K–12 workforce. David Cooper, who directs the Economic Policy Institute’s Economic Analysis and Research Network, told Jacobin that his team estimates that school nutrition workers were paid an hourly median of $12.32 between 2014 and 2019, calculated in 2020 dollars. A White House task force recently recommended the USDA address cafeteria staffing problems by compelling districts and contractors to hire full-time food service employees. At present, the average workweek of twenty-nine hours during the school year is too little to net a decent living — but it’s enough that taking on a second job can be exhausting.
Following her five-hour cafeteria shift, Dotsey works a six-hour dinner shift at a fancy restaurant. Sometimes she also caters for extra cash to help provide for her two teenage daughters. Her hourly rate from the district is $16.95, but because her ten-month pay is divided into twelve months of checks, she ends up with just $50 for a day’s work. And if she needs to see her primary care doctor, there’s a $40 co-pay with her district insurance — $100 for a walk-in visit or to see her hearing specialist. Dotsey told Jacobin she prays she won’t get sick.
Tiffany Green-Heyward, who earns $15.50 an hour after a decade on the job, used to spend nearly $500 biweekly on an employer-provided health plan for herself and her young daughter. “I had to cut it off,” she explains, “just to help pay my bills and stuff like that.”
An active SEIU member, Green-Heyward told Jacobin that the for-profit food service management company (FSMC) that runs her school’s cafeteria likes to “play the union against us,” claiming they can’t raise pay beyond what the bargaining team negotiated:
And I had to tell them that that’s not true. We don’t work for the union, we work for y’all. Y’all could give us anything y’all want. If y’all feel like, y’all wanted to . . . give me $18 right now because of all I do, you could do that. You could go to your big bosses, you could do that. But they just choose not to.
“It’s just a sham, it really is,” Dotsey said of her low pay and costly benefits. “It’s almost like they’re keeping people poor for a reason.”
A Philosophy of Cheapness
The National School Lunch Act of 1946 was designed to enable the US Department of Agriculture to absorb surplus commodities and reimburse schools for feeding their students. In the decades following the law’s passage, civil rights and anti-poverty activists called out the USDA’s failure to ensure the inclusion of many of the nation’s poorest children, who were not receiving subsidized lunches because they attended urban schools with no kitchens. The “right to lunch” movement demanded a universally free National School Lunch Program (NSLP) that would provide high-quality meals to poor minority students and middle-class white students alike.
In The Labor of Lunch: Why We Need Real Food and Real Jobs in American Public Schools, Jennifer Gaddis describes how, having spent a fortune on the Vietnam War, Congress decided against lunch universalism, choosing the “cheaper option of focusing reform efforts and federal dollars on poor children, effectively turning the NSLP into [the] means-tested . . . program” we see today, with students segregated into stigmatizing “free” and “reduced-price” or “paid” lunch camps. This decision prompted middle-class families to lose interest in school lunches, seeing them as cheap food for poor kids.
The revisioning of school meals as primarily a welfare program rather than primarily an agricultural support program caused a decrease in students who opted to pay for lunches, which, combined with meager reimbursement rates, meant that schools had far less funding than needed to operate high-quality meal programs.
Gaddis’s book recounts how food justice organizers, aided by eye-catching projects like the Black Panther Party’s breakfast program, eventually succeeded in securing free meals for America’s neediest students. But because the NSLP’s expansion was not accompanied by funding to retrofit kitchen-less schools, urban school food programs were forced to rely on factory-produced “airplane-style” meals, opening the door to the gigantic for-profit companies that now process commodity goods for K–12 cafeterias. Before long, better-resourced suburban schools followed suit.
Today the cooking labor of school lunch is outsourced to multinational corporations like Tyson and Kraft Heinz, with business practices that wreak havoc on workers and the natural world. These big food companies treat school meals as opportunities to groom future customers, with branded NSLP-compliant versions of commercial products. In the process of extracting profit from nonprofit nutrition programs, they pump meals full of fillers and expose kids to harmful chemicals. Describing her school’s chicken sandwiches, Mary Dotsey told Jacobin: “It’s not a chicken breast. It’s chicken portions pushed together and stuck together with whatever they can.” Dotsey continued: “I’m not a snob, but I couldn’t eat the lunch food. I’m just really creeped out.”
Because, in Heather Hillenbrand’s words, “it’s more heating than cooking,” school districts and their contractors are able to reduce the hours of a de-skilled cafeteria workforce down to a low enough weekly number that many, like Hillenbrand, do not qualify for health insurance.
The US government has always been chary of spending too much on nourishing hungry kids, so USDA reimbursement rates tend to be far lower than the actual cost of procuring and preparing school food. In order to keep their cash-strapped nutrition programs afloat, districts frequently contract with for-profit FSMCs, like Chartwells, Aramark, and Sodexo, that specialize in saving money by obtaining lucrative deals and cutting labor costs.
Research has shown that outsourced K–12 cafeteria workers earn less per hour than those employed by districts. But as is true of transportation and other school support services, privatization in some areas tends to deteriorate wages and working conditions across the board. As Jennifer Gaddis explained, corporate takeover of school cafeterias has degraded “the ability of workers to care for the children they feed.”
Tiffany Green-Heyward described one of the ways the prevailing philosophy of cheapness impacts her work: “Everything is like a rush. We want you off the clock. . . . Like if they was there just snapping they fingers. Like, ‘You gotta go, you gotta go, you gotta go.’”
“Come See What We Do”
As childhood hunger skyrocketed in the wake of the pandemic, the USDA relaxed its means-testing requirements, making it possible for districts to opt in to universally free student meals. The children who previously would have benefited from free school food but either didn’t meet the strict poverty requirements or were reluctant to fill out the paperwork now have access to daily public sustenance.
The USDA has yet to publish participation data that includes these flexible pandemic meals, but we know that when individual districts make school meals universal, participation improves dramatically. Universally free school meals are associated with reductions in absences, nurse visits, and disciplinary incidents, and with gains in academic achievement — because hungry kids can’t learn.
What’s more, a powerful sense of community is fostered when all students can break the same bread together, no questions asked. Tiffany Green-Heyward explained: “Kids [used to be] like, ‘Oh, you got free lunch.’ And they’d be picking on each other — ‘Oh, your mom’s broke.’ So now it’s none of that ‘cause everybody’s eating free lunch.”
A few states have taken the step of putting universally free school meals into law. The USDA flexibility is set to expire in June; but like any public good, it could prove difficult to take away — particularly if families with the means to pack food start opting for the free meals. This show of solidarity would bring more USDA revenue into district nutrition programs, increasing the likelihood that these programs can purchase fresh, locally sourced food and improve the lives of the people serving it. “My pay comes from those reimbursements,” Heather Hillenbrand says. “They could afford to pay us more and they could afford to hire more of us if everyone was eating the lunches and breakfasts.”
Increasing public investment in school meals is critical to freeing cafeterias from their corporate chokehold and improving the labor practices and ecological soundness of district food programs. Together, school stakeholders like parents and teachers can push for a return to the scratch cooking that would transform cafeteria work into a solid career — and make our kids’ diets more wholesome.
Ultimately, though, changes to school meal programs need to be guided by the knowledge of the people who feed America’s students each day. Top-down nutritional guideline updates and menu changes will not produce the desired health outcomes if school meals fail to include the tastes and textures that appeal to young people. Laura Picone, who works for Aramark in New Jersey’s Ramapo Indian Hills School District, says her school’s food program could be improved by the expertise of Picone and her colleagues: “We’re the ones face-to-face with the kids. We’re the ones that know what they do and don’t like. Let us give the input of what to order.”
Cafeteria workers who shared their insights for this piece described feeling invisible to their bosses, boards of education, and district and state leaders. “I would really like some . . . acknowledgement on the level of professionalism that we have,” Heather Hillenbrand told Jacobin. “Both financial and, like, as a dignity thing. It’s kind of humiliating to be like wearing a hairnet all day like covered in food, and people just sort of treat us like we’re just dishing out slop. When really, if we did something wrong, we could get hundreds of kids sick.”
“Come over here and observe,” Tiffany Green-Heyward described asking her managers. “Come see what we do. Come step in our shoes instead of saying, ‘You gotta get outta here, you gotta leave at this time.’”