How to Fight Back Against Injustice in Your School Cafeteria

By Jennifer Gaddis for Teen Vogue

What am I going to eat for lunch at school? What are my friends going to eat? Will they make fun of me for getting free lunch? Do I have enough money in my account? Is the lunch lady going to be nice? Will there be any healthy options? How’s the food going to taste? Will there even be any options for students like me who have allergies or dietary restrictions? I care about climate change and workers’ rights — is any of the food ethically produced? Students in the United States ask themselves these types of questions every day, but may feel disempowered and unsure about how to make change.

We need to organize a youth-led movement for school food justice. Universal free, healthy, tasty, eco-friendly, culturally appropriate school lunches could be a reality in the United States, but only if students, cafeteria workers (over 90% of whom are women), and communities join together in solidarity to fight for real food and real jobs in K-12 schools.

I’ve spent the last eight years interviewing cafeteria workers across the country and studying the history of school lunch activism. Along the way, I’ve learned what young people can do to make a difference, for themselves and for the millions of low-wage workers who grow, harvest, process, distribute, cook, and serve the meals they eat at school. I’ve been inspired by the vision for a Youth Food Bill of Rights put forward by Rooted in Community, a national network of youth-centered food justice organizations, and the efforts of nonprofit organizations like the Center for Good Food Purchasing and FoodCorps to create transparent, equitable, and sustainable food systems, beginning with school cafeterias.

I’ve also realized that school lunch is incredibly complex, including the federal, state, and local policies that dictate what individual cafeterias can serve and the supply chains that enable ingredients to move from farms, fisheries, and ranches to processing facilities and distribution warehouses before arriving in school kitchens.  …

Youth can and should play a key role in transforming not only school lunch, but also the economic and ecological systems they will inherit as adults. There are many ways to take direct action. For example: