Over the past four months, Chicago’s lunchroom workers have spoken with parents across the city about their vision for the food served to Chicago’s schoolchildren. The workers, members of UNITE HERE Local 1, also took their vision for freshly cooked food to the bargaining table. Today, in a landmark agreement, the workers and the Chicago Board of Education signed a new union contract that begins to ensure Chicago’s kids will eat fresh food for years to come.
In addition to important improvements in wages, protecting health care and job security, the contract begins to change the food model in Chicago’s schools by halting any expansion of “frozen food” schools.
The lunchroom workers’ “Let’s Cook” campaign, part of Real Food Real Jobs, had drawn particular attention to the increasing use of frozen, pre-plated meals in the schools. Now, with the exception of one school, the Board of Education has committed to stop transitioning schools from cooking to “warming” kitchens. This victory ensures many Chicago children avoid a future school diet of reheated frozen food and highlights the positive changes possible when frontline workers and administrators collaborate.
“This is a great victory because our voice was heard. We have not only stopped the expansion of frozen food in our schools but also maintained our benefits and our jobs,” said Constance Hatchett, a 12-year CPS lunchroom cook from Hope Academy.
As part of this agreement, CPS will actively solicit and incorporate input from lunchroom workers. A “Good Food Committee,” with representatives from both the Board of Education and frontline workers, will meet monthly to identify best practices regarding healthy food. A bi-annual survey of lunchroom workers will also be conducted to ensure worker input on menu or program changes in schools.
“We’re proud that the lunchroom workers brought the issue of palatable, freshly prepared food to the table,” said Henry Tamarin, President of UNITE HERE Local 1. “It’s a fair settlement but we still have some work to do with the Board of Education. There are still some students in the system subjected to pre-packaged, frozen food every day from the time they start kindergarten to the time they leave 8th grade. All students deserve freshly prepared food.”
The 5-year agreement covers more than 3,200 lunchroom workers who prepare and serve over 77,000 breakfasts and 280,000 lunches every day in over 600 schools. Lunchroom workers ratified the contract on April 28 and look forward to further efforts to ensure Chicago’s kids are fed the food they deserve.