Partners in School Health: The Case for the School Lunch Lady



Now that 55 million U.S. children are back in school, parents, teachers and school administration have been gearing up for the rest of school year ahead. However, one group of individuals who are often overlooked in our cultural imaginations of schools are the lunch ladies (also referred to as school food service employees). More importantly, this group of workers are poorly misunderstood and are often not considered at all. Not only are lunch ladies invisible in academic research, but they are invisible in our national conversation about the quality of school food.

It is important to draw our attention to the work of food service employees so that we may have a better understanding of how they impact children’s health. Although overlooked in considerations of children’s health, lunch ladies do have an impact on children’s lives each day.

When we do see portrayals of lunch ladies in popular culture, they are often portrayed as one-dimensional. This undermines our ability to consider lunch ladies as partners in improving children’s school meals. Based on a media content analysis, I have found that lunch ladies are more often than not portrayed as villains. To take one example, in the acclaimed science-fiction television show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the episode entitled “Earshot” from season three portrays a lunch lady. In this episode Buffy gains the power to hear people’s thoughts. While testing her new ability around school, Buffy hears a voice say, “this time tomorrow, I’ll kill you all,” without recognizing or seeing who it could be. Her and her companions search for this would-be killer. Eventually, Xander, one of Buffy’s closest friends, finds a lunch lady putting rat poison into the food. Buffy comes to the rescue and is able to save the student body from the lunch lady. This villainous portrayal highlights how lunch ladies are rendered incapable for improving school food and being partners in this national conversation.

Additionally, lunch ladies are also seen as unkempt and unhealthy, suggesting that her poor health also makes her an undesirable partner in improving school food. To take another example, consider the now infamous Saturday Night Live skit performed by Adam Sandler entitled “Lunch Lady Land” with an accompanying skit by Chris Farley. Farley dances around the stage while Sandler strums the song that describes the various foods she serves. Although Sandler acknowledged the work of a lunch lady, his portrayal was problematic. For one, Sandler’s characterization describes the Lunch Lady in his song as unattractive when he sings, “Well I wear this net on my head…cuz my red hair is fallin’ out / I wear these brown orthopedic shoes cuz I got a bad case of the gout.” He further goes on to sing, “And my breath reeks of tuna and there’s lots of black hairs comin’ out of my nose.” Secondly, the fact that Farley, who appears as an overweight masculine figure, was chosen to be a good representative of Lunch Ladies, indicates that this image of the overweight, unattractive, more masculinized figure is resonant. Lastly, Sandler continues to describe the scene in which different food items “beat up” the lunch lady. The lunch lady finally asks, “what did I do to make you all so mad?” “You got flabby arms and your breath is bad” was the response of the food to Farley. Ultimately, the food beats up the lunch lady because of her poor cooking and appearance, thus again rendering her an unlikely partner in the fight towards healthy school meals.

Despite how the media has portrayed lunch ladies as unlikely partners, my research found that they do actively promote children’s health. Since October of 2013, I have spent over 425 hours at three school kitchens in a midsize city in the Mid-West – an elementary, middle and a high school, looking at the work of preparing and serving meals. My data collection includes working along side lunch ladies, as well as interviews.

Many of the school food service employees I interact with communicate how important it is to them to be promoting and cooking healthy school meals. For example, one day I was sweeping the floors at an elementary school when I heard one employee, named Vivian, communicate to another employee, Stacey, that she didn’t like how the apple slices on the salad bar were looking. Despite having put them in lemon juice, the apples were quickly turning brown. Stacey looked at the apples and said, “But they tasted so good. I had some for lunch.” Viviane nodded in agreement. Stacey continued to say, “But with these kids, sometimes it’s all about how things look.” This example is just one of many I’ve documented showing that lunch ladies do actively promote children’s health and can be partners in the national conversation and changes to the National School Lunch Program.

When lunch ladies are represented in the media they are often one-dimensional and problematic. Not only do these images suggest that lunch ladies are villains, but they are also unattractive and unhealthy, thus, unable to be likely partners in improving school meals. As the school year is underway, school administrators and parents should try not to forget about the lunch ladies, who so often go invisible. I hope that the next time you bring your child to school or pack their lunch or send them off with milk money that you remember those who are on the other side of the counter trying their best to provide healthy school meals.

Ashley Vancil-Leap is a PhD. candidate in sociology at the University of Missouri. 

  1. Howard Aldrich said:

    Ashley, your post brought back great memories for me of my days in the school cafeteria back in the 1950s, when for a $2 meal ticket, I could eat for about 2 weeks. If I resisted the temptation to buy a 2nd carton of chocolate milk, the ticket might last even longer!

    I think the lunch ladies — and they were all women — did care about us. But, as I recall, they were working under a lot of pressure to cut the costs of food acquisition and preparation. (Government cheese figured heavily in the lunch rotation.) Despite those pressures, I mostly left the lunchroom feeling quite content.

    It looks like in the interim, something has changed! One interesting angle to your project might be to try to figure out when and why the public’s perception of “lunch ladies” changed.

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