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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 following article first appeared at Working In These Times, the labor blog of In These Times magazine. For more news and analysis like this, sign up to receive In These Times' weekly updates.

 School cafeteria food is the butt of many jokes. Despite national  attention and student activism aimed at making school lunches tastier and healthier, and  federal regulations mandating more fruits and veggies that take effect July 1, word on the ground is that it still  leaves much to be desired, to say the least. Prepackaged highly processed salty and sugary foods still make up a disproportionate part of the menu. And ironically, students, teachers and “lunch ladies” around the country have reported, many of the healthier new additions to cafeteria menus are going uneaten.

The union  UNITE HERE Local 1, which represents 3,200 cafeteria workers in Chicago public schools, says this is the case in the more than 600 schools where they work. And they say school officials could have much more success with adding healthier options to the menu that students will actually eat if they consider more input from the cafeteria workers who talk with and observe the kids on a daily basis.

Such worker input is now enshrined in a contract agreement signed between the union and the Chicago Board of Education this week, a measure the union is calling “landmark.” It also addresses the school district’s plans to increasingly replace actual cooking in many schools with “warming kitchens” where pre-made food would be warmed up.

The union says that according to the school district’s 2008 bid solicitation for pre-made food, 178 elementary schools currently have only warming kitchens and – as of that time – that was the plan for all new elementary schools. UNITE HERE says pre-made food is bad for kids and also for cafeteria workers' job security. UNITE HERE senior research analyst Kyle Schafer said that hundreds of jobs could have been at risk if the school system went through with its previous plans for more warming kitchens.  

Schafer told me:

We’ve lost a number of jobs in recent years – obviously it takes less folks to heat a meal than to make a meal from scratch. That’s how the history of institutional food service in schools has been going -- 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. This is both a more traditional labor issue and also a food issue in terms of how it affects the kids.

The new five-year contract agreement stipulates that no full kitchens will be replaced by warming kitchens in existing schools, and the school board must consult with the union—giving them a chance to organize an opposition campaign—if they plan to build a new school with only a warming kitchen.

Barbara Collins, a union member with more than 20 years working in school cafeterias, told me the provisions for worker input in the new contract are crucial to letting workers give kids food that is both healthy and that they will actually eat. She noted that recent switches for health reasons – like a shift from fried to baked potatoes – have been  nearly pointless since many kids won’t eat baked potatoes. Baked chicken has fared better among students, she noted. Such input from the workers who cook 77,000 breakfasts and 280,000 lunches for Chicago students each day will now be considered in developing new menus.

“It’s kind of hard to feed children nowadays—it’s hard to please them,” Collins told me. “Our committee is going to come together and see if we can come up with some good ideas for the children.”

 
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