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This ethnographic study of school food service employees at an elementary, middle, and high school in the Midwest introduces “feeding labor,” a concept to signify a form…
This ethnographic study of school food service employees at an elementary, middle, and high school in the Midwest introduces “feeding labor,” a concept to signify a form of gendered labor that entails emotional and bodily feeding activities.
This chapter is based on 18 months of participant-observation and 25 in-depth interviews.
I illustrate three characteristics of feeding labor: (1) the physical labor of attending to the feeding needs of customers, (2) the emotional labor of managing feelings to create and respond to customers, and (3) variations in the gendered performance of feeding labor as explained through the intersection of race, class, and age. These dimensions vary across different field sites and emerge as three distinct patterns of feeding labor: (1) motherly feeding labor involves physical and emotional attentiveness and nurturing with mostly middle- and upper-class young white customers, (2) tough-love feeding labor involves a mix of tough, but caring respect and discipline when serving mostly working- and lower-middle class racially mixed young teens, and (3) efficient feeding labor involves fast, courteous service when serving mostly working- and middle-class predominantly white teenagers.
These findings show that a caring and nurturing style of emotional and physical labor is central in schools with white, middle-class, young students, but that other forms of gendered feeding labor are performed in schools composed of students with different race, class, and age cohorts that emphasize displaying tough-love and efficiency while serving students food. Examining this form of labor allows us to see how social inequalities are maintained and sustained in the school cafeteria.
This introduction provides an overview of the themes and chapters of this volume.
The chapters present original qualitative and quantitative research illustrating the complex relationship between gender and food. The need to understand the relationship intersectionally and in historical context is apparent and provisioning as caring emerges as a major theme.
Practical and social implications
Food is a human right yet it is not always and everywhere available and when it is not always humanly produced and healthful. The fact that food production and consumption is gendered cannot be ignored in the quest for feeding our planet.
The chapter and the volume are intended to illustrate some of the many ways that food and gender are related and to encourage gender scholars to continue to pay attention to food research.