Mobilizing to re-value and re-skill foodservice labor in U.S. school lunchrooms: a pathway to community-level food sovereignty?

Author:Gaddis, Jennifer E.
  1. Introduction

    The dominant agri-food system, and the labor policies that support it, render food chain workers some of the most economically insecure (and ironically food insecure) populations in the country. (1) Advocates of food sovereignty believe that the individuals who produce, distribute, and consume food should have the right to define the policies and priorities of their food systems. Recent strikes at fast food restaurants and emerging activist research (see for example Behind the Kitchen Door (2)) suggest that a growing number of food service workers have begun to organize in support of food sovereignty. These worker-led movements are using collective political power to address social and economic injustice in the food system. Their efforts are part of a radical food politics that views re-skilling and revaluing labor across the food chain as the foundation of a food system that builds human, ecological, and economic health.

    The systemic exploitation of food chain workers (and the natural environment) is the product of social choices, embodied in institutions, ideologies, and political-economic structures. One such institution is the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), which was originally founded in 1946 with the dual purpose of supporting domestic agriculture and children's health. It is now an $11 billion taxpayer-funded industry that embodies the tensions between reformist and mainstream views of food provisioning. A growing movement in support of "real food" (i.e. locally grown and scratch-cooked foods) seeks to disrupt the NSLP's historical reliance on large-scale farmers and food processors whose products travel through complex commodity chains.

    The processed food industry is responding to the desire for real foods by marketing their "clean label" products (i.e. high quality processed foods made without artificial or other unwanted ingredients) and value-added locally grown foods (that largely travel through conventional supply chains) as a simple and cost-effective solution. This strategy, which I term "real food-lite," relies on the substitution of inputs rather than deeper reforms to the food system. School food authorities are predisposed to accepting industry-based solutions like clean label products since they fit within the existing heat-and-serve paradigm. In other words, the constraints of technological and institutional "lock-in" hinder transitions away from heat-and-serve meals and ultimately prevent more sustainable food systems from developing.

    School foodservice workers are largely overlooked and undervalued by policy and academic circles, but eighteen months of ethnographic fieldwork and archival investigation have led me to a very different conclusion about the importance of cafeteria staff. (3) Frontline workers are critical to the success of the NSLP as it exists today--but even more importantly, they have tremendous potential to drive positive changes to the school food environment. This article focuses on one such example of workers using their personal and collective agency to advocate for both higher quality meals for U.S. schoolchildren and higher quality jobs in the foodservice sector. Underlying my analysis is the understanding that school foodservice is a form of reproductive labor, (4) which means that it encompasses "various kinds of work--mental, manual, and emotional-- aimed at providing the historically and socially, as well as biologically, defined care necessary to maintain existing life and to reproduce the next generation." (5)

    School cafeteria workers have long been a subject of public satire, as in comedian Adam Sandler's song "Lunch Lady Lund." where he sings, "Woke up in the morning, put on my new plastic glove. Served some re-heated Salisbury steak with a little slice of love. Got no clue what the chicken pot-pie is made of." His lyrics (albeit crudely) bring into question the lack of transparency in the agro-industrial food system and the lunch lady's culinary autonomy. Rather than expressing some truism about school cookery and those who perform this work, Sandler's caricature pokes fun at the negative outcomes (i.e. poor food quality and disempowered workers) of a particular mode of school feeding that provides children with meals that are "scientifically nutritious" yet rarely satisfying. The cultural portrait of the lunch lady presented by Sandler and other popular representations (e.g., the television show The Simpsons) doesn't conjure up an image of political activism. Cafeteria workers belonging to UNITE HERE--the largest organization representing foodservice workers in North America--are building a new public image. As of October 2013, school cafeteria workers in Chicago, New Haven (Connecticut), and Philadelphia have begun mobilizing to dismantle the structural constraints of the heat-and-serve paradigm.

  2. "No more frozen food!"

    "We want to cook! Nosotros queremos cocinar!" rang the voices of over two hundred school lunchroom workers as they gathered outside of the Chicago Board of Education in early April 2012 to launch their campaign for "Real Food, Real Jobs." Their demonstration, coupled with the release of their report "Kitchens Without Cooks: A Future of Frozen Food for Chicago's Schoolchildren?" signified the emergence of a radical school food politics in Chicago Public Schools (CPS). At the time of the demonstration, the CPS Board of Education planned to serve frozen pre-plated meals at all newly constructed and renovated K-8 schools.

    These TV dinner-style meals--then served in about 25% of the cafeterias--were the subject of undercover activism by Sarah Wu, a CPS teacher who ate school lunch nearly every day during the 2010 school year and anonymously blogged about it on her website Fed Up with Lunch: The School Lunch Project. These daily snapshots revealed a system of food provisioning that reinforces the social acceptability of wasted food and wasted packaging materials. The single-use plastic containers also introduce endocrine...

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