CHICAGO — You'd be surprised how many books have been written about school lunches. I feel like I've read them all — usually during my short teacher's lunchtime, cowering over a pastel-green plastic tray upon which some form of cold, semi-gelatinous institutional slop was assembled to look like food.
Last week I was primed for a conversation with Jennifer Gaddis, the author of "The Labor of Lunch: Why We Need Real Food and Real Jobs in American Public Schools." I had just eaten a lukewarm cheeseburger (the cheese was totally unmelted) and then moved on to the accompanying banana, since I couldn't stomach the wilted iceberg lettuce that was called "salad" or the soggy, undercooked fries that came with the "meal."
But the public-school culinary experience isn't what makes Gaddis' new book important. It is required reading for anyone who wants this part of our students' school day to be nourishing -- not only for the kids, but for the women who feed them.
"So much of the work of feeding children is gendered -- the majority of workers in food service, especially frontline food service, are women," Gaddis told me. "Whether it's happening at school or in the homes of the millions of students who take lunch from home to school, feeding students is typically done by women."
In her book, Gaddis tells us the remarkable history of the lunch program -- and its roots as not solely a social good for impoverished children, but as a time-saving convenience service for the upper-middle-class ladies who pushed for programs and initially funded them.
"People put [the school lunch program] at having started in 1946, and it's true that that's when legislation passed to create federal support for the program. But it actually took 50 years of organizing led by women who were up against school boards that were made up almost exclusively of conservative men who believed that giving poor children free food would only encourage lazy parents to become dependent on the state."
You have free articles remaining.
What the ladies had working in their favor, however, was the cultural movement toward cleaner food that was spurred by new scientific research on food storage and preparation methods and public health concerns from dirty and lead-infused food as described in Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle."
Like today — when the clean eating movement is butting up against Pinterest feeds dedicated to artistically presented boxed lunches with gendered kiddie themes — Gaddis explains that among the well-to-do there was a certain level of social pressure to send kids to school with "healthy" lunches.
But even back then, making them was a time-suck for moms. Wasn't there a better way?
Enter cheap, female labor.
"School lunch programs have never been really good, quality jobs for women, though back in the day they were considered a good job for mothers because the part-time hours aligned to their children's school schedule," Gaddis told me. "But there has always been an assumption that the work is so close to mothering — an unpaid form of labor — that these jobs have never been considered to need, or to offer, a living wage."
Our whole concept of what school lunch could be would have to change in order for this country to find the political will to revamp and fund more delicious, healthier, locally-sourced school lunches: ones that offer economic opportunities to everyone from farmers to cooks, to the ladies who serve the children during what is often students' favorite part of the day.
"This is something that requires investment, but it's not rocket science," Gaddis said. "Feeding children is something that we should be proud of. It should provide high-quality food and good jobs that appeal to people. But what's standing in the way of that, at least in part, are the huge industrial food companies who recognize that school districts are going to scoff at the kinds of major front-end investments required to change their food systems. So instead they offer food that has characteristics that make it seem like an acceptable substitute for fresh, local food — chicken tenders instead of chicken nuggets. But buying 'better' mass-produced food is not the same as cooking real food, on-site."
Like many of my contemporaries, I came of age at the time when women who had spent decades making food in real kitchens were being fired from careers as cooks and rehired (at minimum wage) to unpackage and microwave food packets for kids.
And now I understand why some of them seemed so bitter.
Esther Cepeda's email address is email@example.com, or follow her on Twitter: @estherjcepeda.
(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group