From Meager Pay to Malnutrition, School Cafeterias Are in Crisis
School meal programs across the US are in disarray due to major staffing shortages and exploitative business practices, and kids are shouldering the burden. We can’t fix the nationwide cafeteria crisis without making life sustainable for the “lunch ladies."
Lorraine Daniels has been working in the cafeterias of East Orange, New Jersey, public schools for thirty-nine years. Some of the children she fed long ago have returned to the district as educators:
They say, “Oh my God, I remember when you used to cook those hot wings for us!” It just makes my heart glad that I encouraged them. It’s hard for these kids. They have a lot of poverty, and they need encouragement to let them know they can be somebody.
Daniels says she and her team “make miracles come out of those kitchens.” But Sodexo, the gigantic for-profit company that manages the district’s meal program, is exploiting their dedication. “The more we do, the more Sodexo gives us to do,” thirty-year East Orange K-12 food service veteran Marian Vann told the school board in February. “There’s been times where I’m doing two computers at a time — running both of the food lines at the same time.”
Pressured conditions like these are commonplace in K-12 cafeterias, with school meal programs experiencing dysfunction due to increasingly dire staffing shortages. In a recent report from the School Nutrition Association, a majority of surveyed districts identified staffing as a “significant challenge.” “There’s a shortage every day because it doesn’t pay well,” says Roxanne Beissel, who earns $15 an hour cooking in Hastings, Minnesota, schools. The combination of high stress and low wages, Beissel explains, “is definitely not appealing to a lot of people.”
As is true across other domains of K-12 employment, the pandemic catapulted school nutrition departments into a crisis that was decades in the making. This year has seen reports of districts taking extreme measures like hiring students or serving bizarre combinations of cold food because they simply don’t have the staff to make hot meals work. Mary Dotsey, a food service specialist in Indian River County public schools in Florida, told Jacobin: “When we’re short-staffed, that means not all the food is getting cooked. So we’re running out by third lunch, and we’re scrambling.”
Federal waivers enabled schools to combat hunger and malnutrition by offering free meals to all students during the pandemic — not just those who fit the US Department of Agriculture’s incredibly narrow eligibility criteria. When Congress allowed this flexibility to expire, state-level campaigns to universalize healthy school meals ramped up. But Jennifer Gaddis, who researches school food politics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, told Jacobin it’s not clear states will have enough staff to handle the spike in meal participation that happens when meals are made universally accessible.
The reality is, we can’t fix the problems with school nutrition programs without making life sustainable for the “lunch ladies” who nourish American students each day.
“We’re Getting Pennies”
Serving billions of balanced breakfasts, lunches, and snacks each year, school nutrition programs ease the morning rush for busy parents while making learning and healthy development possible for the millions of US children suffering from food insecurity. As Beissel notes: “There’s a lot of kids who wouldn’t get a warm meal if they didn’t come to school.”
K-12 cafeteria work involves a high-stakes combination of moving logistical parts, taxing physical labor, and rigorous administrative demands. Meal preparation must follow strict protocols to prevent illness or allergic reaction, and everything is tightly measured and counted: “Every single ketchup packet,” Dotsey sighs. “We’re audited to make sure we’re not giving a piece of chicken too much.”
Although they’re not officially recognized for it, cafeteria staff often tend to children in the ways parents or counselors might, helping them to feel known and loved at school. This practice is sometimes referred to as “community mothering.” “I hug one,” Marian Vann told Jacobin with an audible smile, “and they all come running.” Dotsey posts fundraisers so her “babes” can pay their baseball and football fees. “Little things where I see the kids are struggling, I’ll come outta pocket and do for them,” says Daniels, who has cultivated a sense of belonging for generations of East Orange students.
In return for their indispensable care work, front-line school nutrition staff earn an hourly mean of under $14 — less than the notoriously underpaid cooks at fast-food restaurants. Many are classified as part-time, and even “full-time” cooks, like Angelica Carrasco of Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), can typically only expect about six and a half hours a day, nine or ten months a year. Consequently, K-12 food service employees require public assistance and additional jobs at significantly higher rates than other workers. Dotsey can’t support her two daughters on $16.95 an hour, so after her exhausting cafeteria shift, she waits tables at a high-end restaurant. Carrasco moonlights at a sports stadium.
Health care coverage and other benefits are another huge problem for this overwhelmingly female, disproportionately older workforce. Many school cafeteria positions don’t include benefits, and when they are available, they’re often prohibitively expensive. Daniels and a number of her colleagues forgo health and life insurance during the summer months, when they’re required to pay full-cost for their plans:
We’re like, “Lord have mercy, please don’t let us die in July or August.” I have medication that I take for my diabetes and high blood pressure, so I have to ask my doctor in advance if they can please give me samples for the two months.”
Daniels has lived alone since her husband passed away in 2012. She only collects about $1,500 a month from unemployment in the summer, and once she’s paid her rent, there’s barely anything left. “It’s so sad,” she says plainly. “I feel like this is not slavery, but we’re getting pennies.” In nearly four decades on the job, she’s never even reached a dollar raise. The biggest raise Daniels ever got came when New Jersey bumped up its minimum wage, meaning that she found herself earning the same as the new hires she was leading.
How We Got Here
The 1946 National School Lunch Act was designed to enable the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to absorb surplus agricultural commodities while reimbursing schools for feeding students. For decades following the law’s passage, civil rights and anti-poverty activists called out the USDA’s failure to safeguard the inclusion of many of the nation’s poorest children, who were missing out on subsidized lunches because they attended urban schools without kitchens.
In her book The Labor of Lunch: Why We Need Real Food and Real Jobs in American Public Schools, Gaddis recounts how food justice organizers ultimately secured free meals for America’s neediest students. But because the National School Lunch Program’s expansion didn’t include money to retrofit kitchenless schools, under-resourced nutrition departments were forced to rely on factory-produced “airplane-style” meals, opening the door to the massive for-profit companies that now process commodity goods for K–12 cafeterias. Before long, better-equipped suburban schools followed the “heat-and-serve” trend. Today, much of the work of school meal preparation is handled by multinational corporations like Kraft Heinz and Tyson Foods, whose business practices imperil students’ long-term health and wreak devastating human and ecological harm.
As Gaddis explained to Jacobin, the involvement of Big Food companies has de-skilled school food service work and “degraded both job quality and the ability of workers to care for the children they feed.” When districts outsourced the labor of processing raw goods like whole chickens, nutrition programs needed fewer full-time staff. Similarly, because most school cafeteria jobs no longer involve complex “scratch” cooking, there’s less opportunity for promotion, and for the variety that makes work interesting. Dotsey told Jacobin how, for five years, “all I did was make salads.” She repeatedly asked her manager to let her learn something new, but was told it “wasn’t worth it” since she only worked five hours a day.
Because Congress has never adequately funded school meals, USDA reimbursements — the primary revenue source for nutrition departments — tend to be far lower than the actual cost of procuring and preparing food. To make their threadbare budgets work, a growing number of districts contract with private food service management companies (FSMCs) like Chartwells, Aramark, or Sodexo, that specialize in obtaining lucrative food deals and cutting labor costs.
But while big FSMCs promise to boost the bottom lines of cash-strapped meal programs, in reality they rake in a range of public subsidies (including cafeteria workers’ assumed reliance on summer unemployment insurance and other public assistance) without necessarily returning savings to districts. Research suggests that outsourced school meal programs pay workers less and offer kids unhealthier foods than district-run programs. But as with other school support services, privatization in some areas tends to erode conditions sector-wide.
New Jersey has one of the highest rates of school cafeteria worker outsourcing in the United States. Being contracted out has translated to a steady cheapening of Daniels’s relationship with her employer. She used to be paid for her fifteen minute breaks, but now she has to punch out. Her health insurance was once covered during the summertime; now it’s all on her.
Recently Sodexo has been cutting the hours of the East Orange school cafeteria staff, causing some to quit. “That’s what they want,” Vann explains. “They know how to force you out and bring in new people for minimum wages.”
No Compassion, No Respect
Compounding the intense workload and meager pay is a stinging sense that school nutrition workers’ lives and labor are not valued. Angelica Carrasco told Jacobin she “continuously” feels pressured by her manager not to take days off when she’s sick — a situation that puts Carrasco’s health at risk, along with the health of her co-workers and the children she feeds. Dotsey spoke with Jacobin while ill with a virus she says she caught working next to a visibly sick cafeteria colleague, because “people cannot afford to stay home.”
“I don’t want a pat on the back, I don’t want an accolade,” Dotsey continues. “But the teachers got pandemic bonuses. Why didn’t we? I think we’re seen as just lunch ladies.”
Daniels told Jacobin about her colleague who retired last year after twenty-five years on the job. “Nobody — district or Sodexo — did anything for her. So I took her out and bought her flowers, you know? I’m not a manager, but I have compassion for people.” Daniels paused, choking up:
I mean you coulda gave her something. A card, a cake, something just to say, “We appreciate your service.” [. . .] I’ve been here for thirty-nine years. Thirty-nine, twenty-five, don’t make no difference. I guess they won’t say anything or do anything for me either.
“A Tipping Point”
On February 7, Beissel walked out on strike, along with thirty-four other Hastings public school cafeteria workers. It’s the second cafeteria worker strike that SEIU Local 284 has authorized in two years. Organizing director Shaun Laden told Jacobin the severe staffing shortages in Hastings, where school food service workers start at less than $15 an hour, are indicative of a broader problem:
Hourly school employees are in a staffing crisis that we don’t hear about, and it has to do with the fact that our schools are so underfunded and for so long, that our districts have balanced their budgets on the backs of our lowest paid workers. We’ve reached a tipping point.
Beissel is frustrated by the need for a strike over “no-brainer” issues, but she takes heart from the solidarity she feels with her colleagues: “We treat each other like family. It doesn’t matter how long we’ve been here, we all fight for the same cause.”
In Los Angeles, about thirty thousand hourly school support staff, including Carrasco, voted in February to authorize a walkout that will grind school operations to a halt. With twenty-six years of experience in LAUSD kitchens, Carrasco earns just $16.91, the lowest wage in the district. “I voted to strike,” she told Jacobin, “because I think it’s a lack of respect to be earning the wages that I’m earning after all this time.”
Meanwhile in New Jersey, Sodexo rolled out a contract proposal that denies Daniels’s and her colleagues’ $20 dollar minimum wage request and enables the company to replace them with nonunion workers. Seeing no other options, the East Orange school cafeteria staff voted on March 6 to authorize a strike. At eight other prominent locations across New York and New Jersey, Sodexo employees represented by UNITE HERE Local 100 reached the same conclusion. Seemingly daunted by this collective show of might, the company agreed to return to the negotiating table in good faith.
“You dedicate your life to working for these people, and I’m still struggling to survive,” Daniels says, explaining her strike vote. “I’m tired. We are tired. We need that raise.”