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.”
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.
About the author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist writing for publications including The Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island.