School foodservice is a form of reproductive labor, which is a term meant to encompass various kinds of work—mental, manual, and emotional—aimed at providing the historically and socially, as well as biologically, defined care necessary to maintain existing life and to reproduce the next generation. The increasing reliance on part-time work, convenience foods, and privatization that began in the early 1970s prevents many lunchroom workers’ from performing critical acts of reproductive labor. The unintended consequences of this transformation are now becoming clear in terms of the quality of food served in the nation’s lunchrooms, the nature of school foodservice labor, and the ecological consequences of the industrial food system. For a radical food politics, reversing the devaluing and deskilling of school foodservice provides a tremendous opportunity to engage both workers and students in pursuit of a just and sustainable food system. Much is at stake – over thirty million children participate in the National School Lunch Program each day. Thus the critical question becomes one of how such a radical revaluing and reskilling can be initiated. One possible avenue is through organized labor. In this article, I analyze early efforts to drive such a transformation, drawn from twelve months of participatory research with UNITE HERE! during their “Real Food, Real Jobs” campaigns in three U.S. cities.
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