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School "Lunch Ladies" Fight for Better Food for Students--And Better Jobs

The move to more and more processed foods has largely been one to cut labor costs, not because anyone thought the food was better for the kids.

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The contract agreement capped a months-long campaign including rallies in January and April and two reports: " Feeding Chicago's Kids the Food they Deserve" in January – based on a survey of 436 school kitchen workers, and “Kitchens Without Cooks." As Collins indicated, the “Feeding” report found that 42 percent of workers thought students were not eating the new healthier menu items.

Half of the respondents also said principals never eat cafeteria food – a finding that is not surprising but nonetheless is a bad sign. Perhaps most disturbingly, that study found that only 39 percent of cafeteria workers felt they could report concerns about food quality or safety to parents or others without fear of discipline, meaning almost two-thirds would likely stay silent even when they observed potential problems.

A Chicago public schools teacher and parent, Sarah Wu,  blogged anonymously -- fearing for her job -- for a year about horrendous cafeteria food. The Chicago Tribune described the offerings she consumed, often feeling sick as a result:

…the surprising parade of plastic-wrapped, processed foods that appeared on her tray each day — from bagel dogs, popcorn chicken and Salisbury steak to green gelatin, peanut butter and jelly bars, and blue raspberry ice pops…

Kitchens Without Cooks noted that nine out of 11 new elementary schools built since 2006 under a $1 billion program for modern schools include only warming kitchens. That means, the report says, that 81 percent of new elementary schools compared to 36 percent of older elementary schools serve frozen re-heated food.

The report also quotes workers in various schools that have switched from cooking to “warming,” saying that students used to eat the food more when it was freshly-cooked. They say kids are more likely to throw away the food that resembles “TV dinners” – even if these meals are theoretically healthier “improvements” on the old fare.

The Kitchens Without Cooks report quotes Tiffany Guynes, who is a kitchen worker at and also has a son attending the new Langston Hughes elementary school on the city’s south side. The study  says Guynes often packs a lunch for her son instead of letting him eat the food she serves the other students.

The first day I walked into the cafeteria two questions came to my mind. Where is the stove? And where are the cooks? We don’t have either at Langston Hughes…I wouldn’t eat a lot of this food. If it’s not good enough for me, it’s not good enough for my son.

The reports jibed with other media reports, including a November 2011 report by The Chicago Tribune that participation in school meal programs had dropped to 70 percent since healthier options were added, even though 82 percent of students were eligible for subsidized meals.

Collins—whose four kids and 20-plus grandkids went to or are going to Chicago Public Schools —thinks the new contract is a start in helping both cafeteria workers and kids. She said:

My crew, we take good care of the children. If a child is hungry they really can’t learn. If we feed them properly breakfast and lunch, they’ll do better. I want to see a smile on their face.

Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist whose works has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached at

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