Working the Cafeteria Line

For the past month I’ve been going into my daughter’s school cafeteria every Thursday to pass out samples of the Farm to School recipe of the week. This comes a 45K planning grant that our district was awarded  from Cornell Cooperative Extension to  begin to introduce kids to concepts of sustainability, farming, and whole, healthy, locally sourced foods. September has been kale and we’ve had cold kale salads with black beans, brown rice, tomatoes and corn, warm “beans and greens” with white beans, tomatoes and seasonings, and kale chips. Each week there are a handful that refuse to try the offerings but the overwhelming majority have loved the recipes and many come back for seconds and even thirds. On more than one occasion I’ve been told “It’s about time” and “Thank you for giving us something that looks good that we want to eat.”

Yesterday I got to work behind the line as I served a warm kale dish and it enabled me to gain a new perspective into the challenges the cafeteria workers face on a daily basis.

Time Constraints

This is a big one. My daughter’s school actually has a long lunch period, 40 minutes, but many schools have only 20. Even in the 40 minute lunch period you have throngs of hungry students lining up all at once and the cafeteria worker has a few seconds to take their order, plate it and move on to the next. To increase the challenge our cafeteria offers a surprising number of options; deli sandwiches, the hot meal, a salad bar, or the vegetarian “fun lunch”. It is the cafeteria workers job to run back and forth and get the kids the items they want.


When the number one job is to get all students fed quickly,  presentation is going to be a challenge. When you add to that the quality and type of food being offered, often canned or prepackaged processed foods, you have an even greater challenge. The meatloaf and and watery vegetables that I saw in the line yesterday looked like something you might expect to see in a wedding banquet room in a Motel 6, and that’s what the cafeteria staff have to work with. They also use cheap, flimsy cardboard trays that leaked or completely disintegrated under the weight of the food yesterday.

What Required

During the course of our four lunch periods I heard the cafeteria staff in weary voices remind the kids numerous times  to take a fruit or vegetable. It’s not because they are overly concerned about the proper nutrition each kid is getting, it’s because the Federal Govt requires students to take all the elements of a healthy lunch to get monetary reimbursement for  participation in the lunch program. It doesn’t matter if the student throws the food  in the garbage, in fact, they had a garbage can positioned very conveniently at the exit of the lunch line for what appeared to be this exact purpose.

What isn’t Required

Proper pay and health benefits. The cafeteria worker that I worked along side yesterday had been at the school for 9 years. Her job has always been part time (so the district doesn’t have to pay benefits), and her low hourly salary doesn’t allow her to make ends meet. She works two jobs back to back, both in the district and both low pay and without benefits so that she can pay the bills. It was amazing to me that she had stayed in her positions as long as she had.

Dream for the Future

With the introduction of programs such as Farm to School we are making small strides in the right direction towards bringing farm fresh, local foods into our cafeterias. It’s a great start but as I observed yesterday, so much more needs to be done. The job of the cafeteria worker needs to be full time with benefits. They should also receive culinary training and food education so they feel they have the tools for success and a stake in the process of feeding thousands of kids on a daily basis.

Anyone whose ever complained about a school lunch or had a child who has complained about a school lunch should advocate for these changes and work in whatever capacity they see fit towards a redesign of our food system that we all know is long overdue.


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