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What made you last think about school meals? When your child started kindergarten? During Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign in 2010? Not since you graduated high school?

To many, school meals are not something we give much thought to. At Food Connects, we work to dispel people's biases about school meals, partner with school nutrition programs to incorporate more local food and scratch cooking, and share stories of their success. We were inspired recently when reading Jennifer Gaddis' new book, "The Labor of Lunch: Why We Need Real Food and Real Jobs in American Public Schools" which broadens the spotlight on school meals. Gaddis states, "Ultimately, school lunch is about community. It's also about the conflict between civil society, the government, and the private sector over what children should be fed, whose responsibility it is to feed them, who should do the work of feeding them, and what, exactly, this work should entail. More often than not, food for children to eat at school is prepared by a woman — a child's caregiver, a private sector factory worker, or a public sector lunch lady — for free or for poverty wages."

All of a sudden school lunch doesn't feel as innocuous as previously thought.

The history of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) starts in the early 1900s when feminist activists Emma Smedley and Ellen Swallow Richards took on the work of a nonprofit lunch program and advanced the new science of home economics. We've come a long way since the early 1900s — far stricter food safety regulations and cafeterias finding a permanent home in schools — and yet we're still engaged in debates over universal free meals and for-profit vs non-profit lunch programs. This history is a good reminder that progress isn't always linear and successful activism is a balance of ideology and pragmatism.

One of the pragmatic compromises made by early activists set the stage for the dichotomy we're still working to dissolve today — that school nutrition programs need to "break-even" financially, despite no other school program shouldering the same expectation (imagine the administration expecting the science department to raise revenues to cover the cost of lab equipment). Due to conservative, mostly male, school boards and administrations dictating policy, in the newly created school lunch programs, cheapness — at the expense of quality and workers — reigned supreme.     

Throughout the years, there have been persistent efforts by schools to reduce costs and corporations to eke out profits. Both, typically, at the expense of those serving our kids and most affecting poor people and communities of color. Along with women, BIPOC leaders were often on the frontlines fighting for change. The 1960s saw Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Poor People's Campaign call upon the government to provide free lunch to all poor children and the Black Panther Party running the Free Breakfast for Children Program. In the 1970s there was a conservative backlash and school cafeterias were opened up to private corporations.

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"The Labor of Lunch" follows New Haven chapters of the labor union Unite Here, as well as Minneapolis Public Schools, as examples of how to establish better economies of care within schools. These labor movements emphasize the inextricable connection between food justice and racial justice. While both should be taught to our students, they should also be practiced in our schools.

In Windham County, we can look to Windham Central Supervisory Union (Seed2Tray) and Windham Northeast Supervisory Union (Farm to School Cafe), as well as individual schools such as Putney Central School and Marlboro School, to find schools valuing labor. In all these cases, staff saw their pay increase and were offered school benefits when the schools started running their own meal programs. These are the test pilots for our entire region as we move back to locally-focused school nutrition programs that value workers and the quality of the food.

Gaddis concludes by suggesting a "more expansive vision of what food systems could look like if we focus our collective efforts on transforming the NSLP into a hub for food justice — real food and real jobs — in every community across the rural-urban divine." From the push for universal meals to local food hubs and community kitchens, much of that work has already taken hold in our region. With widespread community support and creative solutions, we could find our community leading the next step in the food justice movement.

Conor Floyd is the Farm to School program manager at Food Connects, where he supports increased local purchasing, school meal participation, and food, farm, and nutrition education in Windham County schools. Food Connects is an entrepreneurial nonprofit that delivers locally produced food as well as educational and consulting services aimed at transforming local food systems. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.