K-12 school cafeteria staff are severely underpaid according to a March 2022 report in Jacobin. School cafeteria workers made an average of $12.32 per hour between 2014 and 2019, making them some of the lowest paid workers in an already underpaid industry. Compounding this, these employees work an average of twenty-nine hours per week, meaning many of them cannot afford to live on their cafeteria salary alone, but taking on a second job is exhausting. The Biden Administration has recognized the problem and released a February 2022 report recommending that the United States Department of Agriculture (UDSA), which is tasked with implementing school lunch programs, ensure cafeteria workers are employed full time.
A February 2022 report by the Economic Policy Institute considering K-12 staff shortages more widely explains that poor cafeteria staff pay is likely a major reason for a shortage of cafeteria staff. They made an average of just $331 per week (in 2020 dollars) between 2014 and 2019 according to an analysis of Current Population Survey data, though there are slight discrepancies in the average hourly pay and weekly pay figures due to methodology. In contrast, the median American worker made $790 per week, more than double the average K-12 cafeteria worker.
Privatization, and school districts contracting with for-profit lunch providers, such as Chartwells, Aramark, and Sodexo, have exacerbated this problem. K-12 cafeteria staff who are employed directly by school districts earn more than their outsourced counterparts. Additionally, Jacobin explained that privatization in one area “tends to deteriorate wages and working conditions across the board.” School lunches began being served in a standardized manner after passage of the National School Lunch Act of 1946, which was originally intended as an agricultural support program, but the privatization of K-12 school lunchrooms didn’t take hold on a large scale until the 1970s. In the 1960s and 1970s, advocates of urban schools without kitchens organized the Right to Lunch Movement, since urban students were not receiving school lunch. In response, Congress reformed the program, practically expanding it to all public and non-profit private schools. However, no funds were allocated to build kitchens in kitchen-less schools, forcing these schools to rely on privately mass produced, pre-made meals. Eventually, suburban schools with kitchens switched to mass produced meals too. Because school meals were no longer cooked from scratch, the job of cafeteria staff became a part-time, less-skilled job with worse pay. This switch has not made cafeteria workers’ jobs easier though. One worker told Jacobin that their job required them to engage in “hazardous activities like lifting very heavy things above my head when they’re like 420 degrees.”
The only corporate outlet that covered this story is business magazine Fortune, which claimed “no one wants to be a cafeteria worker anymore.” Fortune focused its story on the shortage of workers, suggesting that higher pay alone will not resolve it.
Source: Nora De La Cour, “’Lunch Ladies’ Are Tired of Being Underpaid and Overlooked,” Jacobin, March 13, 2022.
Student Researcher: Annie Koruga (Ohlone College)
Faculty Evaluator: Robin Takahashi (Ohlone College)