The Labor of Lunch: My Interview With Jennifer Gaddis (And a Book Giveaway!)

As we close out the week, I’m pleased to share my recent interview with Jennifer Gaddis, assistant professor of Civil Society and Community Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Gaddis has written an important new book, The Labor of Lunch: Why We Need Real Food and Real Jobs in American Public Schools, which brings a feminist perspective to the National School Lunch Program. As the title suggests, she specifically focuses on the labor crisis in our school cafeterias, persuasively connecting the dots between improving school meals for children and improving the lives of the underpaid workers who feed them.

After you read our Q&A, be sure to leave a comment below to enter to win a free copy of the book!

The Lunch Tray: Although The Labor of Lunch is your first book, you’ve been researching and writing about the National School Lunch Program for many years now. What first led to your interest in the topic?

Jennifer Gaddis:  I’ve always really cared about social justice and environmental issues and I grew up in a family that loves to eat. As a graduate student at Yale, I knew I wanted to pursue a research project related to local and sustainable food systems. So when I learned about farm-to-school programs I became fascinated by the idea of using the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and its roughly $14 billion federal budget as a tool for transforming the American food system. The more I spent time visiting schools that are leading the real food movement and interviewing the people who are on the frontlines of the NSLP, the more passionate I became about the need to totally transform school lunch in America. Now, about a decade after I began my journey, I’m convinced that we need a universal free, eco-friendly school lunch program that provides all students with healthy, tasty, culturally appropriate meals. I’m also convinced that we need to organize for better wages and working conditions for the millions of low-wage food chain workers who grow, harvest, process, distribute, prepare, serve, and clean up after the meals that kids eat at school. 

TLT: You bring an overtly feminist lens to The Labor of Lunch, and at one point you argue that if the women who’d provided school meals before the passage of the National School Lunch Act had been able to draft that legislation, we might now have things like universal meals consisting of ‘real’ food, more school gardens, and widespread nutrition education. Can you unpack that assertion a little bit for us?

JG: The United States is a patriarchal capitalist society and women didn’t even have the right to vote when they first started organizing together to create experimental “penny lunch” programs in public schools. The ideology that “women’s work,” including the work of feeding children, should be cheap, if not free, shaped the way these early programs were designed and continues to shape the culture of school lunch in the US.  

It’s important for today’s school lunch activists to learn about the initial vision for nonprofit school lunch programs and the forces that have made those dreams so hard to realize. I was often surprised—and occasionally saddened—when digging through stacks of archival materials and reading oral histories of child nutrition professionals. It seemed like the original founders of what I refer to as the “nonprofit school lunch movement” were advocating for many of the same things that your readers are still fighting for today.

During the Progressive Era (1890s-1920s), for example, influential home economists like Ellen Swallow Richards and Emma Smedley argued that school lunches should be nourishing, affordable, and educational. Food- and garden-based education was popularized by John Dewey at the time and repopularized by Alice Waters and the Edible Schoolyard Project a century later. Then, in the 1930s and 1940s when the federal government took steps to actively finance and support the expansion of nonprofit school lunch programs, women played a huge role, both as professionals working in the lunch programs and as volunteers/fundraisers (often working together through parent-teacher associations). They helped to cultivate an impressive network of school gardens that helped to radically improve dietary quality for poor families and increase local self-sufficiency during times of hardship. 

Yet their knowledge of school lunch programs—how they functioned, their educational potential, and their financial challenges—was largely ignored by policymakers when the National School Lunch Act (NSLA) was created. They wanted the Office of Education, not the US Department of Agriculture, to be in charge of the school lunch program and they wanted Congress to allocate money for nutrition education, but they lost both battles. I think it’s fair to say that today’s school lunch program would look different if these women had written the NSLA and had a greater say in how and to what extent it was financed.

Jennifer Gaddis

TLT: You describe in the book different periods in the history of the NSLP during which advocates have pushed hard for universal (free) meals for all children—but so far, without success. Do you think today’s framing of the issue — that is, that universal meals would put an end to “lunch shaming” — might actually succeed where prior such efforts have failed?

JG:  I think we have a better chance at getting universal free meals (especially lunch) now than ever before. Social media has really amplified the issue and there seems to have been a shift in our collective understanding and willingness to talk about populist economic policies since Occupy Wall Street and the 2016 democratic primaries.

I, for one, am optimistic. I think we can certainly pass legislation at the federal level that would put an end to the practice, but I’d like to see us push further. I’ve been excited to see bipartisan efforts to outlaw lunch shaming, but some of the bills I’ve seen don’t go far enough. They make it illegal for schools to overtly shame children with unpaid lunch debt, but they don’t alleviate the underlying problem of lunch debt. This just shifts the burden back onto the school district and, in most cases, private charity or general education funds end up filling the gap in the budget. Stronger legislative responses, including California’s anti-lunch shaming law, provide a mechanism for at least reimbursing schools for the cost of the meals they serve. The proposed Universal School Meals Program Act, put forward by Representative Omar and Senator Sanders, would actually address the root cause of the issue and I’m hoping people will rally behind it.

TLT: I know you’ve intensively studied not only our own school meal program, but those in several other countries as well. What countries offer an especially good model, and what might Americans learn from them? 

JG: While I was writing The Labor of Lunch, I encountered people who would tell me, “Sure, xyz city/town/school might cook from scratch and source local food, but that’s the exception, not the rule. We’ll never change at the national level.” This always struck me as defeatist, especially when there are other countries with national school lunch programs that really prioritize scratch cooking, food education, and local sourcing. So I decided to do research in countries where the dominant model is scratch cooking and national/regional food cultures are widely celebrated.

I’m currently doing fieldwork for my second book-length project, which draws on research in China, Brazil, India, Japan, South Korea, and Finland to examine how civil society activism, corporate interests, and national policy priorities shape the social justice and ecological goals of public school-lunch programs. 

Japan is a world leader in nutrition education and I really like how students are involved in caring for themselves and one another at school. While not universally free, the meals are free for poor children and cheap for everyone else. Everyone is expected to participate and lunch is treated as an educational experience. The national government encourages schools to source at least 30% of their ingredients locally, but some of the schools I visited this past summer were sourcing about 75% of their ingredients locally. Granted, these schools were at the leading edge of the chisan-chisho (locally grown, locally consumed) movement, but they are far outdoing what even the best farm-to-school programs in the US have managed to accomplish in terms of transitioning their supply chains. 

This is just one example and there are things to like about lots of national school lunch programs. I know France and Italy tend to get a lot of attention, as do some of the Homegrown School Feeding Programmes sponsored by the World Food Program—but the countries that excite me the most are the ones that are investing in universal free school lunches and actively using their public school-lunch programs as a leverage point for building more sustainable, healthy, and fair food systems. With those criteria in place, the three countries that shoot to the top of my list are Brazil, Finland, and South Korea. Of course, as a researcher, I’ve learned just how vital it is to do on-the-ground fieldwork since the situation described in official government reports or media stories may overstate the positives and ignore the challenges. So, I’m planning to travel to South Korea this summer to learn more about its newly established Universal Free, Eco-Friendly School Lunch Program. I’ll be posting pictures on social media, so follow me if you’re interested!

TLT: Your vision of the ideal school lunch program (and one that most TLT readers would also like to see) would provide all children with free, ethically-sourced, scratch-cooked meals, prepared by school food workers who are fairly paid and properly valued. Do you think we can actually attain those goals in today’s fractured political climate—and, if so, how might we get there?

JG:  School lunch has been unnecessarily politicized in the United States, which is nothing new, as I write in The Labor of Lunch. School lunch mirrors the racial and economic discrimination pervasive throughout American society. During the Progressive Era (1890s-1920s) charitable lunch programs were set up to help poor children. Menus often promoted the cultural project of “Americanization,” which was fueled by notions of white supremacy and white saviorism. From the 1930s-1960s, federal support for nonprofit school lunch programs disproportionately flowed to white, middle class Americans, which is true of many of the federal policies that helped build the racial wealth gap we see today. During the late 1960s, anti-poverty groups, activist organizations, and a coalition of women’s clubs were instrumental in uncovering, publicizing, and politicizing structural racism and economic discrimination in the National School Lunch Program. After poor children won their right to a free lunch in the early 1970s, food quality quickly plummeted and school lunch was stigmatized as “welfare food.” School lunch then became a target of extreme cost-cutting under the Reagan administration, which seriously considered reclassifying ketchup (a condiment) as a vegetable in the 1980s as part of a broad-based campaign to slash government spending that ultimately hurt poor Americans and communities of color the most. 

My research on the history of school lunch and my in-depth fieldwork on the current movement for “real food” in schools suggests that the best way forward is through collective action. We need to organize together to affect change at multiple scales (i.e., local, state, national) and build powerful coalitions that are capable of demanding real change. Part of this, as I detail in the book, is about recognizing whose interests would be served by a public investment in a school lunch program that provides all students with free, ethically-sourced, scratch-cooked meals, prepared by school food workers who are fairly paid and properly valued. Big Food companies might lose out, but lots of folks would win. So I see your question as part of a larger debate about how we can start to change our public institutions and pass new legislation that truly maximizes long-term public value. Here I’m talking about education, climate change, jobs, and infrastructure. I lay out some possible directions in the conclusion of the book, but I’ll offer a few thoughts here as well. 

First off, I think it is crucial for us all to do what we can to help people to buy into the vision of what’s possible. I do this in The Labor of Lunch by highlighting school districts like Minneapolis Public Schools that are taking impressive strides to really reimagine school lunch. I also think we need to find ways to encourage the folks that Janet Poppendieck refers to as the “missing millions” to opt-in to the NSLP, especially those families that can afford the cost of full-price lunches. 

As your readers may know, participation really matters for school lunch programs—increasing revenue allows them to spend more on high quality ingredients. As an example, in Austin, TX, the foodservice director told the local news that she could afford to serve grass-fed beef if the home-lunch kids ate school lunch once per week, organic produce if they ate school lunch twice per week, and organic milk if they ate school lunch three times per week. I understand that not all parents are lucky enough to send their kids to schools that are at the cutting edge of school lunch reform, however, so it’s important to focus on direct action at the local level and other forms of advocacy at the national level. 

This brings me to my final (and certainly most challenging) recommendation, which is to empower people to organize for meaningful change. The Chef Ann Foundation has a fantastic parent advocacy toolkit for those looking to change their school lunch programs at the local level. For national change, FoodCorps has an excellent policy action center with an option to sign-up for policy alerts. I’m also creating a free community reading guide for The Labor of Lunch, complete with discussion questions and ideas for how to organize for change, that will be live on my website within the next week or so. And I wrote a short piece for Teen Vogue about how young people can fight for food justice in their cafeterias, which I hope you’ll share with the young people in your lives. 

While I recognize the polarization and discord within the current political climate, I think it would be a mistake for school lunch activists to invest their energy in protecting the status quo from additional roll-backs or fighting for incremental change. A bold vision of school lunch reform—like the one put forward by Omar and Sanders—is a better platform from which to build a coalition politics that is strong enough to actually demand (and win) a better future for school food in America. 

TLT: Is there anything else you’d like to tell Lunch Tray readers about The Labor of Lunch?

JG: The book is both a feminist history of the NSLP and an in-depth analysis of current reform efforts (especially those focused on bringing “real food” to schools). Among other things, The Labor of Lunch highlights the voices of frontline school kitchen and cafeteria workers—who are all too often treated as a cost to minimize rather than a force for positive social change—and includes a companion series of short videos that allows readers to hear firsthand from frontline workers involved in the real food movement. The book itself draws on hundreds of hours of audio interviews, extensive participant observation, and a collection of nearly 200 oral histories of child nutrition professionals. So, if you want to understand the challenges that school lunch programs face—e.g., why turnover is so high in entry-level positions, the pressures they face to keep labor cheap, the process of training staff to cook from scratch—this book offers the inside scoop. It is also a bit of a love letter to school lunch workers—past and present—and in this sense, it would make an excellent gift for anyone in the child nutrition profession.

* * *

Many thanks to Jennifer Gaddis for allowing me to interview her here!

For a chance to win your own free copy of Labor of Lunch, just leave a comment below by Friday, December 20th at 6pm CST. You can tell me why you’d like to win or you can just say hi. I’ll use a random number generator after the comment period closes to select one lucky winner and if you comment twice (e.g., to respond to another reader’s comment), I’ll use the number of your first comment to enter you in the drawing. This offer is open to U.S. residents only. Good luck!



  • “A blueprint for how to raise healthy eaters in a fast-food culture”New York Times
  • “One of the Best Books of 2019 (So Far)” — Real Simple 
  • “Everyone who has children should read Kid Food. And everyone who doesn’t should read it, too.” — Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation.  

Kid Food: The Challenge of Feeding Children in a Highly Processed World. For more information, visit 




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