The halls of K-12 schools across the country are eerily quiet, as teachers and students stay home to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Yet c...
The halls of K-12 schools across the country are eerily quiet, as teachers and students stay home to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Yet cafeteria workers are reporting to work, figuring out innovative ways to serve children free, nutritious school meals in the middle of a pandemic that has caused unprecedented job loss and economic upheaval.
The global crisis has made one thing abundantly clear: Millions of families depend on access to government-subsidized meals and when schools are closed, students may go hungry. So cafeteria workers across the country are leaving their own children and loved ones at home, even risking their own health and purchasing their own protective gear, to continue serving free meals.
School cafeteria staff care deeply for the students they feed. “I lay awake at night trying to figure out how we can do more for our kids,” wrote a worker from Kansas in a school meals Facebook group.
For far too long, workers like her have not been recognized or adequately compensated for the vital role they play in feeding and caring for the nation’s children. The nation’s 420,000 cafeteria workers deserve to be able to support and protect themselves and their families during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.
Students still need to be fed
Cafeteria workers know that their students — most of whom qualify for free or reduced-price school meals — consume up to 58% of their daily nutrients through the national school breakfast and lunch programs.
To make sure children have enough to eat during this pandemic, the federal government needs to increase and expand SNAP, the nation’s largest food assistance program. It must also ensure that K-12 cafeteria workers can keep delivering school meals made with the fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, lean protein, and milk that vulnerable children rely on.
Providing child nutrition programs with $8.8 billion of supplemental funding through the CARES Act, a $2 trillion federal stimulus package, was a step in the right direction, but it won’t provide permanent relief.
Cafeteria workers are putting in more labor without more pay
Like others figuring out how to operate in our new COVID-19 reality, school cafeteria workers are putting in long days as they totally upend their regular operations. The federal government has responded quickly by relaxing its regulations on school meal service, allowing cafeterias to serve grab-and-go meals and to provide multiple meals at one time to reduce the risk of transmitting the coronavirus. However, the government needs to step up with additional funding for school meal programs to offer workers’ security through paid-sick leave and funds to offset the cost of safety and sanitation supplies.
ER doctor on coronavirus::What needs to happen now — a 5 week national quarantine
Cafeteria staff are used to working on a shoestring and problem-solving as they go. School meal programs have been underfunded and understaffed for decades, creating challenges for workers to accomplish the mental and physical labor that goes into preparing and serving balanced meals to hundreds or even thousands of students at a time. Yet even during a busy lunch period, cafeteria staff routinely take on the extra effort to learn students’ names, tie shoes, and ask, “How is your day going?”
They don’t do it for the pay: their jobs are mostly part-time, and many lack benefits like paid sick days and employer-provided health insurance. The median hourly wage is $10.20, but there are workers with years of on-the-job experience who still earn minimum wage.
These very workers are suddenly classified as “essential employees.” While their neighbors and fellow school staff shelter at home, cafeteria staff across the country are preparing millions of grab-and-go breakfasts and lunches. In some school districts, youth under the age of 18 pick up several days’ or even a week’s supply of meals at select school sites. In New York City alone, over 100,000 students picked up meals in a single day. In other places, bus drivers deliver meals to rural residents or park outside of housing complexes in high-poverty neighborhoods to distribute meals.
Cafeteria workers know this is a scary time for kids. And they know a big part of their job is to cafe for children’s emotional needs. From California to North Dakota to Virginia, they are doing what they can to bring a sense of normalcy to children’s lives and a smile to their faces through special touches like adding stickers to lunch bags, writing positive messages on bananas, and dressing up in fun costumes.
Behind the rosy picture that cafeteria workers try so hard to preserve for their students, is a more complicated reality. Cafeteria workers are told to stay 6-feet apart, but cramped spaces and aging infrastructure pose a challenge that increases the risk of contracting the virus and bringing it home to their families. As one worker posted on Facebook: “I’m terrified even though I know these kids need food.”
Government officials need to step up
There are no federal standards dictating whether cafeteria staff should be paid during school closures if they do not come into work, nor is there any federal funding that school districts can access to provide hazard pay or subsidized child care for the workers who do come in. Without adequate labor protections, cafeteria workers with high risk of coronavirus complications, or with high-risk individuals in their household, may feel compelled to work, in need of the paycheck and without enough paid time off to stay home for more than a few days.
We count on cafeteria workers to care for students — we shouldn’t ask them to sacrifice their own health and well-being to do so. During COVID-19 school closures, the federal government must ensure that all school food service departments do right by their workers. Hourly staff need at least two weeks of paid sick leave. They should continue to be paid for their regularly scheduled hours at their hourly rate, even if they are unable to work or fewer staff are needed. Those that do continue to prepare and distribute meals should be provided with hazard pay, child care, and adequate safety protections.
Coronavirus economic crisis:Great Recession showed countries can’t fight the coronavirus alone
In the future, when members of Congress make decisions about funding school food programs, they would do well to remember that cafeteria workers are an integral part of our national safety net and public health infrastructure. These essential workers deserve a federal guarantee that they will earn least $15 per hour, have access to paid-sick leave and affordable healthcare, and retire with dignity.
The pandemic has shown us just how important “lunch ladies” are, and we owe it to them to remember this lesson when school is back in session.
Jennifer Gaddis is an assistant professor in the Department of Civil Society & Community Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of The Labor of Lunch: Why We Need Real Food and Real Jobs in American Public Schools.
Amy Rosenthal recently received her PhD in planning and public policy from Rutgers University, with a dissertation titled “‘It should be healthy but it should be good’: Perspectives of Students and Staff on the National School Lunch Program.