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🎤 Interview: Jessica Terrell
Jessica Terrell (she/her) is an award-winning journalist and audio producer. She is currently a special projects editor at Honolulu Civil Beat, a Hawaii-based nonprofit news site.
Jessica was previously the lead reporter and host of Offshore, a narrative journalism podcast about social issues in Hawaii and the Pacific Rim. She spent much of her childhood traveling around North America and wrote her first newspaper article for a small paper in Massachusetts, where her family was living aboard a 50-foot raft built out of materials collected from New York City dumpsters. Spending her childhood on the fringe of society imbued her with a deep sense of empathy and curiosity that guides her work as a journalist.
Jessica Terrell is the host of the Left Over podcast, “an investigative podcast from LWC Studios revealing the toxic politics in the American public school lunch system.” The podcast was very insightful, especially for someone who I promise you has probably not thought about school lunch since the 10th grade.
Left Over is on the Sounds Like Impact list of Best of Impactful Podcasts 2023…so far. Read on to learn more about how the podcast came together! This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
So while you are currently at Honolulu Civil Beat, you actually took about a 2-year break and worked on the podcast Left Over during that time. How did you go from focusing on news about Hawaii to an audio documentary about America’s school nutrition program?
Like a lot of journalists during the beginning of the pandemic, I was really burned out. I had gone from doing Offshore—this in depth, multi-episode journalism—to the daily grind of covering the pandemic. So, I really needed a break. And, I had also become a mom, like literally 12 weeks before the pandemic started.
When this project was presented to me I was drawn to the opportunity to get back into field reporting, but it also tied in with what we've been doing with Offshore and our journalism over these years. All of these complex issues that we are grappling with in this country right now can be viewed from this one program. Racial inequality, gender inequality, economic inequality, climate change… all of these things are wrapped up in this one program.
And looking at these issues in a more contained way is always something that I'm drawn to as a journalist because it gives us a chance to explore these really overwhelming topics in a more narrowed fashion.
Actually that’s one of the things I really loved about the series is this tie in to so many other social issues, but in a way that didn’t feel overwhelming. Some you’ve just mentioned, but also food sovereignty and even mass incarceration! Tell us a bit about how you determined which angles of the school lunch problem you would bring in to discuss?
We were lucky that there's been some really good scholarship on this that gave us good starting points, like Jennifer Gaddis’ book The Labor of Lunch. But really, we just did like a year of reporting on some themes and then at the end had to choose which ones seemed the most pressing to us. It came down to, in a lot of ways, economic and racial inequality.
But also, of course, gender and the devaluing of work. I think one of the other things that did help guide stuff was looking at what the issues were coming out of the pandemic. The pandemic really laid bare a lot of these underlying problems in America, particularly around gender and labor–what was happening to women in the workforce with women also being caretakers.
It was really important to me to explore both the ways that the labor of the people in the cafeterias–who are mostly women–is really being undervalued and at the same time explore how the school lunch program should be helping families with kids not have to do all the caretaking at home. It's like a dual labor that in many ways unequally falls on women and we really saw that coming out of the pandemic.
Of the issues you mentioned, a root of a lot of problems with school lunch appeared to be structural racism. Episode two went into great detail about how school lunch manifested at the local and national levels. Can you give the cliff notes version of what happened here?
School lunch programs had been started on a local level for decades and decades before World War II. And a lot of the local programs were really aimed at creating this sort of community of care, and providing education and food to address inequality on a local level.
Then came World War II and the realization that food was a national security issue because people were malnourished and that was one of the reasons why recruits weren't there. So there became this big push to create a national school and lunch program.
The national school lunch program in many ways became a farmer subsidy program. One of the main proponents for farm subsidies was Southern lawmaker who was a staunch segregationist. Folks that I've talked to during research shared that a lot of the reason why school lunch programs initially were led by states was that the states had the ability to exclude whole groups of people or whole schools. For instance, they didn’t have to invest in kitchens in urban areas.
And a big part of the reason why it went to individual states was because they wanted to make sure that the national school lunch program basically didn't become a vehicle for furthering civil rights. So continuing segregation was an underlying goal of some of the people behind the final bill. The result is that you have a program that even today is very uneven, despite a lot of heavy national regulation.
There was a lot of divestment in urban communities in the 60s and 70s. Mothers–particularly Black women–really had to fight because their kids were not getting lunch at all in schools, or were getting something from these sort of centralized kitchens, like cold sandwiches; whereas suburban districts–mostly white districts–with nicer, newer schools would have a completely different meal program. The centralized kitchen model is the model that most school districts have today.
Speaking of today, Massachusetts recently passed a “millionaire’s tax” that will be used to help fund free public school lunches there. With COVID-19 pandemic relief ended–which provided free breakfast and lunch to U.S. school children (and medicaid coverage), what is a long-term solution we need to be rallying around right now?
Pretty much everyone that I talked to at this point agrees the most important thing is to just get universal free lunch for kids. That is not going to solve all the problems in the system, but at least it's a starting point because it removes the stigma and the barriers to free food.
Equalizing across the system also gives lunch workers the ability to not spend a bunch of their time trying to track down each meal; there's so much paperwork and red tape involved in the school lunch program.
I don't know the best way to reform the whole big school lunch system, but I think we need to have some sort of national shift in conversation about what this is and why it matters. Like, it's not just about giving kids the basic nutrients to be able to concentrate in school. We need to find a way to have a conversation about what it means to feed kids well and why this is important in our society.
The things that give me the most hope are happening on a local level. Some local school districts are doing really amazing things and there are states that are pushing forward universal free lunch programs. And so I hope that at some point there'll be enough of a local movement instead of all these things coming from the top down.
Things will bubble up from these communities and the community voice will end up influencing what happens with national policy. A lot of well meaning national changes often don't involve the people who are feeding kids and their community at the local level.
Just to bring it back to Jennifer Gaddis, because she is one of the top scholars on school lunch: one of the things that she pointed out in the podcast is that the school lunch program came about not because of this national effort, but because of all the decades of work done–mostly by women in previous generations–to bring in the idea of school lunch.
Change can happen on a local level and that can make a national difference. So getting people to focus on what's happening in not even their district, but just their school I think is some of what needs to happen.
There is a lot of information we should take away from your 6-part investigative series. But if there is one thing, above all, that you want audiences or prospective listeners to understand, what would it be?
There is a ton of inequality and a lot of challenges baked into this system that everybody should care about, whether or not you have a kid. If you care about climate change, if you care about gender inequality, if you care about social and racial justice, you should care about this program.
That’s one of the takeaways, but the other big takeaway for me is that there's so much opportunity here. Like it's not like we'll never fix it. There's a lot of room within this program to address things like belonging and how we create community.
One of the interviews that didn't make it into the podcast that was pretty impactful to me was someone talking about how we are in an era of a lot of depression, anxiety and other mental health problems among young people. Also school shootings. We're dealing with a lot of problems with kids.
What would it mean to have school lunch be a place where everybody in the school came together and felt nurtured and welcomed ? Like how do we create those spaces? School lunch is such a huge, multibillion dollar program that if you fix problems in this, it's going to echo out throughout the entire food system and through so many different things.
So this is a system that is fixable. This is a program that is fixable, that impacts so many issues in our society. And if we care about it and we focus on it, we could make a difference in a lot of different places.
Is there any new or upcoming work that you would like to share with us?
I'm working on a short series of articles about school lunch for The Guardian that hopefully will be out later this fall. There are some things we didn't get to look at in the Left Over podcast that I’m definitely going to try and dive into, such as the stigmatizing of kids and what happens to parents who can't pay.
When you listen to Left Over, make sure to check out the resource guides on the website as well!