Green Beans and Good Jobs: Two Models to Transform the School Food Industry

Preparing and serving healthy food in a school in Washington, D.C. is more than a job for Howard Thomas. It is his salvation.

In 2007, Thomas was on the streets selling drugs when, after two of his friends were killed, he realized he needed to change his life. He received culinary training and found work he loves through the nonprofit DC Central Kitchen and its innovative school food enterprise. The venture is part of a growing movement to reshape the $16 billion school food industry by delivering fresher, tastier meals to low-income children while creating good jobs for workers, empowering communities, and building local economies.

Thomas's experience with DC Central Kitchen has been a "transformation from destroying lives to helping lives," Thomas said in a video interview.

Reinventing the school food industry is a tall order. More than any other segment of the food sector, the meal system operates under tight financing and regulatory constraints. And because school calendars dictate labor demand, jobs tend to be part time, with a three-month summer hiatus.

But advocates around the country are implementing creative models to meet the challenges. The models vary in approach, scope, and focus, but they share the goal of providing good food and good jobs where they are needed most. Today, America's Tomorrow profiles two models for change: DC Central Kitchen, which entered the school food market to advance workforce and economic development in low-income neighborhoods of color, and the successful drive by SEIU Local 99 to raise the floor on wages for cafeteria workers in Los Angeles.

DC Central Kitchen: A School Food Enterprise Strengthens the Local Economy

The 25-year-old DC Central Kitchen (DCCK) is a Washington institution — a pioneering nonprofit that fights hunger with food that would otherwise go to waste, trains unemployed adults for culinary careers, and works to create a healthy, equitable urban food system. In 2008, DCCK moved into the school food business, launching a social enterprise that has doubled the organization's size and impact.

Now the school food program serves nearly 5,000 healthy, locally sourced meals every day to 2,600 low-income children in 10 public and private schools. Almost all are located in neighborhoods of color that have the city's highest rates of poverty and obesity.  The program employs 35 men and women from the community, including graduates of the Central Kitchen's signature Culinary Job Training Program.

That program, started in the organization's earliest days, offers culinary training to people struggling to overcome barriers to employment — homeless adults, shelter residents, and people with conviction records. The program graduates 80 to 100 people annually with a job placement rate of 87 percent in 2013 and 97 percent in the first six months of this year.

By contract, the school food program must pay the school district's minimum wage. Health benefits are fully covered. All jobs are full-time and employment is available through the summer, two rare elements in the school food sector. In part because of this, job turnover is low, also a rarity in the industry. The enterprise brings in $4 million annually, almost one-third of DCCK's budget.

By hiring formerly incarcerated people and others from the community, the enterprise also brings benefits that cannot be quantified. Thomas, a culinary program graduate, has gotten to know the boys on the lunch line at the private Washington Jesuit Academy, and he hammers in the message: stay in school. He plays pickup basketball with students in the schoolyard, and he has organized healthy cooking classes for parents. It is not unusual for a graduate of the academy to drop by and thank him for his guidance and inspiration.

The social enterprise would have been confined to a few mission-driven private schools like this one, if not for D.C.'s Healthy Food Act, passed in 2010. By providing local funding in addition to federal reimbursement for healthy school lunches in the public schools, the act allowed DCCK to expand into the school lunch industry.

Strong student participation in the meals program is also important, to keep costs down. DCCK says its participation rates are above 90 percent, higher than the district average.

The organization views the school food program as a building block in a new food economy that creates jobs, strengthens the local economy, and improves community health. "We try to provide an inclusive approach that links all the different pieces of the food ecosystem," said Alexander Justice Moore, chief development officer of DCCK.

The biggest challenge for the enterprise is scaling up in a way that broadens access to job opportunities. DCCK's two commercial kitchens run at full capacity, and there have been challenges placing people with criminal records in cafeteria jobs in public schools directly.

To work around these constraints, the organization is exploring expanding into off-site food production for other school lunch vendors. "We aren't in competition with the national food contractors," explained Moore. "We just want to model what is possible and provide good jobs for people who need them."

SEIU Local 99: Raising the Floor for Cafeteria Workers

Two years ago, the Los Angeles Unified School District adopted the nation's first food-buying pledge declaring that good jobs are a basic ingredient of good food. Now the district is making good on that promise for its food service workers, under a union contract that will raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

"This contract means children can count on a stable team of caring adults to serve them every day," said Tonya Chambers, an elementary school cafeteria worker.  "It also means that those on the frontlines can have a real voice in healthier menu choices."

The agreement covers 33,000 employees, including teacher assistants, custodians, and bus drivers in addition to 3,484 food service workers. Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 99 won the contract through a novel strategy that tied the well-being of the workers to the well-being of students, schools, and communities.

"Rather than assuming we knew what the workers wanted, we went to 600 school sites over the course of five months, had open meetings with our members, and asked just a couple of questions," said Craig Leedham, Local 99 director of internal organizing. "What concerns you about your work and your ability to provide for your family? What stresses you about your life because of your income?"

A picture emerged of workers straining to make ends meet, often working long hours in multiple low-wage jobs to feed their kids. And these challenges have a direct impact on the schools themselves — more than half of the workers have children in L.A. schools. Rather than craft a standard union proposal in cold legalese, the union amassed stories of employees who play important roles in the success of students, as parents, mentors, and community residents.

School food jobs are part time and used to pay hourly wages of $10.80 to $15.57 for the most senior employees, before the new contract. The minimum wage will climb to $15 over two years, with across-the-board increases for workers already earning that amount or more. The district also committed to redistribute the hours of workers who leave through attrition, to increase hours for current employees rather than hire more part-timers. The union will work with the district to help expand before- and after-school nutrition programs.

"It's a great example of contract bargaining that supports workers and students," Chambers said. "It creates more good jobs, ensures we have more training and job promotion opportunities, and helps address the reality of poverty and hunger in our schools."

Find out more about the places that are providing healthy food lunches and creating good job opportunities at the Healthy Food Access Portal and on the recent webinar co-sponsored by PolicyLink and MomsRising, Healthy Communities, Healthy Schools.

Read the rest of the September 29, 2014 America’s Tomorrow: Equity is the Superior Growth Model issue.