Caring for our Students and the Women who Feed Them

Jenny Osburn | The Union Street Cafe Cookbook |

Colourful salad bars, made-from-scratch meals crafted with love from locally-sourced ingredients, children happily lining up for a wholesome meal served by smiling, fairly-compensated cooks: this is the stuff that school lunch dreams are made of. So WHY is it taking us so long to get there?

Most people do not realize that cafeteria workers rely on sales to children to pay every cent of their wages. Over the past few decades, food budgets and paid hours in many institutions have been whittled down to the bare minimum, meaning workers just aren’t given the time to make meals starting with whole ingredients.

Just as troubling is that our school kitchens, built and equipped with public dollars, are de facto only available to “paying customers.” Though the child poverty rate in the Annapolis Valley is nearly 25%, the pressure to break even doesn’t lend itself to just giving away food for free. Policies exist that state hungry students must be fed lunch without shame, but there is no directive to schools on how to accomplish this.

For all the good intentions and hours spent by volunteers, for every healthy school lunch post gone viral, there is a cafeteria worker desperately trying to make ends meet. Nearly all cafeteria workers are women, single mothers among them. Unless they have another significant source of income, the wages from these jobs leave individuals and families well under the poverty line. Estimated annual salaries range from $6,000 to $17,000, meaning many work an entire day to make what some of their colleagues earn before the first bell rings.

To add insult to injury, these workers, already earning the least in the entire education system, lose an entire day’s pay every time schools close, be it a storm or a planned in-service. This kind of exploitation can lead to high stress, burnout, and ill health.

Currently some of our workers have as few as three hours a day to prepare and deliver lunch for an entire school, order supplies, do the banking, wash the dishes, and so much more. If sales drop, as they have recently due to a new standardized menu, hours are cut accordingly. It’s a broken system with terrible consequences for our children’s health and well-being.

That’s because, at the same time, billions of dollars have been spent by processed food companies persuading us that children don’t like real food. So school boards and other organizations have become pawns, unwitting or otherwise, in a battle largely won by enormous food processing companies. The foods they produce may be quick to prepare, but they are often damaging to our health. Starved for time? Chicken nuggets will make them smile and go from freezer to lunch tray in no time! Sales flat? Boost them with our easy-bake cookies, chips, shakes, pizza and poutine!

So much work has been done by passionate people over the decades to counteract this problem, but without proper funding, little of it will last long enough to make a difference. We need to ask ourselves: do we want fairly-treated, engaged cooks preparing nourishing food for our children at school? Is it important to know that every kid in our community will be fed at lunchtime without shame? Do we want affordable lunches for our children that will set them on a lifelong path of joyful eating and good health? How about the boost to our economy if we sourced the food for all of our students right here in Nova Scotia (about 40 million dollars’ worth per year!)?

With so much at stake, we can no longer afford for our cafeteria staff to barely scrape by. We need them to be fully-funded members of our school communities. We need all families to be assured that their children have the right to food at school without fear of shame, whether they can afford the full price or not. Kings County has already committed to providing a portion of the funds needed for a pay-what-you-can or similar program at every school in their municipality, but implementation is still to come.

This issue isn’t going away, and the Covid-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the strain on our families. We need to act now. If you have children in school, encourage your principal and parent groups to channel available funds into an inclusive lunch program. And reach out to your MLA and MP: our government representatives need to hear the message that school food is an investment we can’t afford not to make.

Jenny Osburn ran a restaurant, wrote a couple cookbooks, and thinks that everyone deserves good food. Join the Facebook group Better School Food Annapolis Valley and let’s figure out how to make it happen!