Jennifer Gaddis wrote "The Labor of Lunch," about ways to improve public school lunches. She is an assistant professor of civil society and community studies in the School of Human Ecology at UW-Madison. 

It can take a dozen times of trying a vegetable before a child learns to like it. That’s not a risk some lower-income parents can take, no matter how many vitamins are in beets.

“That’s one thing schools can be useful for,” said Jennifer Gaddis. Parents “maybe knew over time their kids would like something,” Gaddis said. “But in the immediate term, they couldn’t afford their kids not eating.”

“Schools can play an important role in helping to mitigate that risk, making sure a wide range of foods are on offer. Even for higher income parents, trying to get your kid to eat is not always fun. Getting kids excited about food in schools is a help.

Gaddis earned her Ph.D. in environmental studies at Yale University and moved to Madison in 2014. She’s now an assistant professor of civil society and community studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Gaddis’ new book, published in November by the University of California Press, is “The Labor of Lunch: Why We Need Real Food and Real Jobs in American Public Schools.” In it, she talks to cafeteria workers, explores the benefits of universal free school lunch, argues for letting youth lead the way and encourages parents to stop packing lunches.

For the past decade, she has studied the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), founded in 1946. Under the NSLP, students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches based on family income relative to the federal poverty level. Some 30 million kids participate, while 20 million “opt out” — go off campus or pack a lunch. In her book, Gaddis calls these “the missing millions.”  

Lately Gaddis has been expanding her work, both globally and locally. She spent part of the summer in China and Japan, exploring their national school lunch programs. Next semester, she’ll teach a food studies class at UW. She wants to build in a project-based learning component that involves Madison area schools and school lunch activists.

At the same time, Gaddis has been adjusting to her role as a public scholar. Earlier this year, she talked about school lunch in Minneapolis on comedian Wyatt Cenac’s HBO show “Problem Areas.” She’s working on an op-ed for the New York Times. On Dec. 9, she had a piece published in the Washington Post.

“It’s long past time to give every child free lunch at school,” the headline read. “Only this will end lunch shaming.” She called the national lunch program “a flawed model that relies on children’s payments to supplement federal funding.”

Gaddis stopped by the Cap Times on a recent morning to talk about how “good food” for schoolkids goes well beyond what’s on the plate — and is more than ready for reform.

In your book, you frame the reformation of school lunch as a feminist act. Why?

The School of Human Ecology at UW-Madison used to be the School of Home Economics in the early 1900s. I got interested in the political and economic strand of home economics that was about how, before women had access to electoral power, they could build power through forming their own collectives.

They could use their wealth strategically. Like, if we’re in charge of shopping, how can we use our purchasing decisions, individually and collectively, to reward business with good ethical practices and punish those that don’t?

A lot of the same things that are talked about today on mommy blogs are the things that were talked about in ladies' magazines. How do I know this food is nutritious? How do I know that it’s pure? There were issues with food safety, not knowing what was in the food.

There was a push to say: If we were to create nonprofit school lunch programs, it would not only benefit our own children, it could also improve the lives of children from poor households and make things easier for working class women.

We have this national school lunch program that costs like $14 billion a year. Almost every community around the country participates in this program, and it’s important to own the fact that it’s women who created it.

You argue that, in order to improve school lunch for everyone, parents who pack their kids’ lunches need to opt back in.

There’s an example I like from Austin Public Schools. They’re already a leader in the real food movement — getting clean label foods, phasing out foods with “ingredients of concern” like high fructose corn syrup, colors, additives. They have a robust farm-to-school program.

They’ve expanded access to free school breakfasts and lunches. The school district is moving beyond thinking about nutrition and local economies, and starting to also think about animal welfare and worker rights, environmental sustainability.

But only 50% of kids participate in the school lunch program. So their food service director went on local news and said, “I have these ideas for what I want to do. But in order to move things forward I need for you parents who are sending your kids with packed lunches to let your kids eat school lunch.”

She said specifically, I could afford to serve grass-fed beef in all the cafeterias if you let your kids eat school lunch one time per week. I could serve organic produce if you were to let them eat two times per week, and organic milk if you were to let them eat three times a week.

It’s an economy of scale thing.

Meals become cheaper to produce per meal. The higher the participation, the meal cost is lower, so schools have more money to devote to higher quality ingredients.

A big thing parents can do, even if they don’t want to spend time on direct action or getting involved in national level advocacy, is to let their kids eat school lunch a couple times per week.

Couple that with a discussion with people working on school food reform. Participation matters a lot more when you’re using it as a way to build the budget. You need to have a vision, and you need to have enough people willing to buy into that vision.

There was a New Yorker story recently that said when food is good for babies, babies don’t like it. How can we make school lunch healthier and build in choice to reduce waste, all while being efficient?

Menu planners recognize that kids tend to have more sophisticated tastes as they get older. They might have roughly the same meal at elementary, middle and high school, but it might be spicier or have stronger flavors as you scale up.

Another thing I’ve seen schools use are flavor stations. Instead of having kids think everything’s supposed to be salty and fatty, they’ll have herbs and seasoning and hot sauce, so kids can adjust their meal however they want.

Sometimes things just take time, for kids to become used to new recipes. After the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (of 2010), there were reports of kids chucking trays in the trash. Part of it was “You can’t tell me what to do.” Part of it was national manufacturers saying, “How do we make something taste good without more salt?”

Some high schoolers were more reactionary. But for kids who were acculturated into a lower sodium, fruit and vegetable rich environment, it became their normal. Taste education through literal repetition in the cafeteria is something we have to recognize. You’re not always going to have the same group of students in front of you.

There’s a lot of resistance to change around school lunch. Why do you think that is?

It’s easier to say we’re just going to serve the same meals, nothing that challenges kids’ palates. Or we can say no, we want to use the school lunch program to transition tastes in ways we know we need to.

You have to understand the group that you’re serving and involve them in talking about what your goals are. Make them feel like they’re part of the process. If things don’t work out once, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever try it again.

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