School Food Politics: A Conversation with Jennifer Gaddis

Close-up on gloved hands filling vegetable cups with carrots, tomato, and broccoli.

The United States’ National School Lunch Program feeds nearly 30 million students each day. In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, many schools delayed closures because of concerns over how students would access a meal without the care of cafeterias and their cooks, revealing that this massive public service and the workers that sustain it can no longer be taken for granted.  

Book cover image showing cafeteria trays with overlaid text. The Labor of Lunch: Why We Need Real Food and Real Jobs in American Public Schools

But how was this critical food provisioning infrastructure established? Who are the workers that make it possible? And where should it go in order to advance a more just food system? These are the questions Dr. Jennifer Gaddis seeks to answer in her 2019 book The Labor of Lunch

Dr. Gaddis is an assistant professor of Civil Society and Community Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In this conversation, we discuss the politics of participatory research, the centrality of racial justice organizing to the success of the food movement, and the stunning connections between school food and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and uprisings against white supremacy in the United States.

Stream or download our conversation here. Interview highlights follow.

Interview highlights:

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Faron Levesque: Before we jump into the meat and potatoes of your fantastic new book, I’d love to hear about you and your identity as a scholar-activist, a researcher, and an educator. What was it that brought you to the table?

Jennifer Gaddis: I always had a personal interest in food, and as I was growing up I developed a strong interest in environmental justice. That brought me into a Ph.D. program in environmental studies, and I got interested in the question of how we transition our systems of production and consumption to make them more sustainable and just. I was really looking to do a dissertation project that would allow me to do community-based work, and heard about this farm-to-school program happening. I started off in this project being interested from more of an environmental perspective, and it was through the process of actually trying to understand school food as this system that I came to develop the interests that I have today, centered on labor and feminist food politics. 

Headshot of a woman with short brown hair wearing a dark blue bluouse
Jennifer Gaddis, assistant professor of Civil Society & Community Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

From there, I started to see that there was this issue not only within school food, but also at the time within much of the food movement, where labor concerns seemed like a tremendous afterthought. People thought about environmental implications or health implications of eating more local and organic food, but workers who are in the farms and factories and slaughterhouses and cafeterias, a lot of them are really struggling to survive on the wages that they bring home, and I think that needs to be a much bigger piece of the conversation about what the food movement does. 

So many of these questions about how we advance social change or how we build different kinds of food systems really have to do with power, and how we actually build power to allow the people who are most impacted by systems to be the ones who are directing what they look like. In the case of school food, we have about 30 million kids every day who participate in the national school lunch program, and there’s about 420,000 cafeteria workers who feed them, but those are the two groups of people who have the least amount of say.

FL: The Labor of Lunch is so well-researched, it’s truly impressive. Beyond your archival deep-dives, you also immersed yourself into almost every sector of the massive infrastructure of school food in the U.S. In your introduction you write about how so many other researchers had been through the same cafeterias doing “nutrition interventions,” but never asked anyone about their day-to-day. How do you go about participatory research?

JG: When I first started doing participant observations in kitchens and cafeterias, I really was doing classic ethnographic work. But over time workers got to know me, and they were in the middle of negotiating a new contract with the Board of Education. One of the organizers for UNITE HERE had seen me in the kitchens and cafeterias and knew that I was a researcher, and she asked me if I would help with this participatory research project.

So many of these questions about how we advance social change or how we build different kinds of food systems really have to do with power.

The workers themselves were really involved in creating a survey questionnaire, figuring out what it was they wanted to ask each other. But in having those conversations, they were also doing one-on-ones, this really classic element of organizing.  Through the work of actually generating data they were already building strength within their union to support this vision for what they called “real food and real jobs.” My role in that was just to take direction from them. A lot of the questions that I answer in my book related to how school kitchen and cafeteria labor became degraded and deskilled over time were things that came out of conversations that I had with workers. 

FL: The Labor of Lunch opens this lens for understanding all the environmental complexities of school food. What kind of difference can farm-to-school and scratch cooking make for both the ecological impact of school meals and also racial and economic justice?

JG: During the time that I was doing field work for this book, from 2010 to 2017 or so, there was this real change within the industry where a lot of manufacturers started to reformulate their products. A lot of that effort to plug-and-chug into the existing heat-and serve-model, just better quality industrial food, is what I refer to as “real food light” because, on the one hand, it’s a little closer to the whole food origins of the initial ingredients, but it’s still keeping the exact same system in place in terms of the labor structure. 

In the book I try to discourage people from viewing that as the endpoint of where schools should go. A lot of times it’s discussed as being the most practical thing to do, but it keeps control in the hands of Big Food and doesn’t open opportunities for more community control. Developing what I refer to as “community-based culinary capacity”— ability, time, skills, and infrastructure to cook from scratch—opens up a lot more possibilities to do values-based sourcing and to be inclusive in terms of who’s getting to make decisions about what school meals look like. When you are able to cook from scratch, you can be a lot more creative about trying to get food from farms that use organic and regenerative practices, especially if you can use things that aren’t as easy for them to sell to other kinds of markets. 

One of the ways that this relates to racial and economic justice is that you’re more able to remove what people in the industry refer to as “ingredients of concern”: things like high-fructose corn syrup, artificial colors and flavors, and preservatives. If we look at who’s participating in the National School Lunch Program, it’s disproportionately kids from communities of color. So making sure that school meals are as wholesome as possible, and not introducing additional chemicals into kids’ bodies, is an important part of food justice and racial justice. 

Headshot of a person wearing overalls, a straw hat with black sunglasses resting on the brim, and a black mask with a pink triangle and the phrase "Silence=Death" in white text.
Faron Levesque, food justice activist and History Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

FL: We’re hearing a lot of “hero talk” in the mainstream media about food chain workers and their resilience during COVID-19. National spotlights are certainly important, but do we really need another hero?

JG: There’s been a lot of increased awareness of some of the challenges that these workers face, but offering platitudes—calling people heroes—is certainly not enough. One of the things the pandemic has really made clear with respect to school lunch, and vice versa, is just how many families are struggling, and how something like the pandemic can really impact people in ways that exacerbate existing inequalities that we have along race, class, ethnicity, and other factors. 

Recognizing what people are doing is important, but words aren’t enough. We actually have to start changing what these jobs look like both in terms of their structure and their compensation. We have to actually change our behaviors. Employers and policymakers have a really important role to play in making sure we move beyond rhetoric to action, but they won’t do that if people aren’t putting pressure on them.

FL: We’re in the midst of a twofold public health crisis: the COVID-19 pandemic and white supremacy in America. We’re seeing how the Movement for Black Lives continues to mobilize to defund police and demand an end to the entrenched, systemic racism that’s held up by policing and incarceration and everyday white privilege. It was in the late 60s when the Black Panther Party framed state-sanctioned police murders as the central public health issue in the U.S, and in the book you talk about some of the work that sought to seize the means of health and food. Could you help us connect that radical past and organizing tradition to our contemporary moment?

JG: Both the National Welfare Rights Organization and the Black Panthers were responding to structural racism, but they did it in different ways. The National Welfare Rights Organization was really concerned about their children being treated differently because they were poor, and they were making demands on the state. The Panthers, on the other hand, around the same time started their own free breakfast program which they saw as a way to meet a real need in their community, because so many of their kids were not being served through the USDA’s lunch program. The program became hugely popular, and in a lot of ways was an important organizing tool because its popularity helped to draw more people into learning about the Panthers and what they were doing. 

Black and white photo of children sitting at a table, posing for the camera with raised fists.
The Black Panthers’ Free Breakfast for Children Program addressed youth hunger and structural racism in the community. Image from FoundSF.

I want to draw attention to the fact that Philando Castile was actually a cafeteria worker—he was a manager at a school in St. Paul. He was somebody who wasn’t earning a ton of money in his job working in school food service, but was known for having everyday acts of generosity where he would pay from his own pocket for kids who couldn’t afford to feed themselves. That really inspired people who knew him, including his mother Valerie, to continue that work through a non-profit organization

I think that there’s a lot of organizing and popular education that needs to happen in order to build a nationwide movement for change, because if we look at the history of school food, where we’ve actually seen massive change happen is when there’s been lots of coordinated protest and direct action. I think that ties directly into what we’re seeing right now with police reform. We’re having a national conversation and there are national protests, and I think it’s because there’s all this coordinated action happening in so many different places around the country.

FL: You show us the inroads that Big Food and Big Ag industries have made in dominating school food, and how corporations have played a pretty huge role in creating the conditions that force districts and workers to bow to these grim, zero-sums of racial capitalism. But you’re also telling a story about what you call a “revolutionary politics of sustainability,” and specifically how grassroots efforts like school community kitchens have challenged those corporate business models for food provisioning through a much more expansive approach to public care. Could you tell us more about these school community kitchens?

JG: That term “revolutionary politics of sustainability” is something that I first saw in a book called A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things by Jason Moore and Raj Patel. The reason I really gravitated toward the term is because it really engaged with a number of the same things that I was writing about. They say in their book that “a revolutionary politics of sustainability must recognize—and mobilize—through the contradictions of a tripartite division of work under capitalism: labor power, unpaid care work, and the work of nature as a whole.” Within the school food program, we see all three of those things happening. 

If we look at the history of school food, we’ve seen massive change happen when there’s been coordinated protest and direct action.

School community kitchens are a concept that has emerged recently as people are recognizing that a lot of school kitchens that have equipment for doing scratch cooking aren’t using that public infrastructure to the fullest extent possible. Usually school is over at 3 PM and you don’t have food preparation happening on weekends and during the summer months, which are peak production for local agriculture. There’s a lot of underutilized capacity. 

Some of the exciting experiments going on in different places around the country are asking how we can actually start to use school kitchens for elderly feeding, Meals on Wheels kinds of things. There’s lots of opportunities to think about how we can use this infrastructure to provide meals for other groups of people who need it—whether it be families who want a convenient option, or tying into other public food programs. In doing so it also can help create more full-time jobs, versus somebody going from the schools working a part-time job to the nursing home working a part-time job, which is a pretty common occurrence. 

FL: Do you have anything on deck?

JG: I got really interested in how other countries organize their school lunch programs, specifically in places that have universal free school lunch programs and places that are really intentionally using their school food programs to support sustainability transitions. So I have been doing a project for the last couple years on South Korea’s universal, free, eco-friendly school food program—really trying to understand the organizing work that went into creating that program and what the role of the state has been in creating the infrastructure. There are a few other places that I am starting to do research or forming collaborations, because I’m really interested in trying to find new models for how to think about transitioning national school lunch programs at the scale of an entire nation-state, versus a district-by-district approach.

FL: Wowza, that’s amazing! Jen, thank you so much.

Featured image: Rosalba Gomez, who works with Arlington Food Services, prepares fresh vegetable cups for the National School Lunch Program in the kitchen at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia. USDA Photo by Bob Nichols, 2011.

Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.

Jennifer Gaddis is assistant professor of civil society and community studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She holds a Ph.D. in social ecology from Yale University. She is the author of The Labor of Lunch: Why We Need Real Food and Real Jobs in American Public Schools (University of California Press, 2019). Her writing has appeared in numerous peer-reviewed journals and popular publications including the Guardian, Washington Post, Teen Vogue, and The New York Times. Website. Twitter. Contact.

Faron Levesque is a food justice activist and Ph.D. candidate in History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Faron is currently based in Memphis, TN, their hometown, where they run a community teaching kitchen for AOVS Urban Farm. They hold an M.A. in History in the Program in Gender and Women’s History (PGWH) from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a certificate in the Public Humanities. Their research, teaching, and writing interests include the history of food, alternative academies, racial capitalism, and the Queer South. Contact.