The Lunch Lady has long been a popular target of easy jokes and middle-school pranksters. She doesn’t always smile; she’s usually telling you to get back in line; and let’s face it – it’s hard to look hip in a hairnet and an apron. Years ago, Adam Sandler and Chris Farley painted her in a not-so-flattering light on SNL, with soliloquies about her sloppy joes, hoagies, and grinders (hoagies and grinders, hoagies and grinders…). But before his “Lunch Lady Land” performance, Sandler gave a heartfelt dedication to the woman with the plastic trays:
“This is a song about the high school experience sung through the eyes of the person who – more than anyone else – puts young people on the right path. I’m not talking about the teachers; I’m not talking about the coaches; I’m not even talking about the guidance counselors. I’m talking about a person we call…The Lunch Lady.”
Okay, perhaps Sandler’s words contained a tinge of sarcasm, but I think he was onto something. Recently, school lunch has become a hot issue on the public agenda, what with Jamie Oliver kicking up a fuss in West Virginia, and Michelle Obama kicking up soccer balls all over the White House lawn for her “Let’s Move” campaign. Everyone’s so worried about what kind of food is on the plate – is it processed, is it fresh, is it healthy, is it bad. But what about the person who puts it there?
Just ask Jamie Oliver, who was reduced to tears in a school kitchen on the debut of his ABC reality series, “Food Revolution.” Is he scared of The Lunch Lady? Damn right, he is. Does he need her on his side for his show to succeed? Definitely. (But keep up the antagonism, Jamie; this is TV, after all.) In fact, he needs her so much that he finished his second episode by sucking up to her with student thank-you notes and a standing ovation. Still, those lunch ladies are some of Jamie’s most hardened skeptics. And if you put yourself in The Lunch Lady’s shoes, you might understand why the lead Lunch Lady scoffed at his suggestion that she start making meals from scratch.
First off, let’s talk money. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean annual income of elementary and secondary school food service workers in 2008 was $22,050. Even reheating frozen lasagna is an arduous task when you’re barely making a living. What’s worse, those measly salaries are at risk of getting cut when school budgets go bad. In Houston, for example, 57 workers were laid off, and 425 saw pay cuts after the Houston Independent School District suffered budget shortfalls earlier this year. Not the ideal reward for literally putting bread on the table.
Plus, the work ain’t easy or glamorous. I don’t need stats to tell you that feeding lunch (and breakfast, and snacks) to hundreds of kids every day is tough cookies. Even if the food is mostly frozen or prepared, as Jamie Oliver was appalled to learn in Huntington, it still requires a lot more heavy lifting, cleaning, and prep work than most of us would warm to.
So, The Lunch Lady is underpaid, overworked, and underappreciated. Actually, who works in a school and doesn’t fit that description? But I think she’s worth singling out. Between outrage over crappy food and obese kids and future health problems, The Lunch Lady is the missing link. After all, we say “don’t bite the hand that feeds you,” not “don’t bite the really unhealthy frozen food that feeds you.” The main reason Americans came to eat the way we do – more cheese puffs than cheese, more potato pearls than sautéed beets – is that we don’t have time to cook, and, with limited budgets and staffers, neither do schools.
Obviously, schools need a better grocery list, but they also need a better Lunch Lady budget. A week ago, the Senate cut President Obama’s proposed $10 billion increase in school lunch funding over the next ten years, reducing it to $4.5 billion additional dollars. Assuming that Congress approves that budget in the Child Nutrition Act, this adds up to just six more cents a day per child, whose current daily allotment is $2.68. Something tells me Lunch Lady will not be getting a raise.
It’s probably illegal to leave a tip in the milk crates, but this May, during Child Nutrition Employee Appreciation Week, make sure your kids give The Lunch Lady an apple.