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How Much Do Lunch Ladies Make?

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High Job Satisfaction in Feeding Hungry Kids

Do you remember your favorite school lunch? Was it chicken tenders? Burgers or pizza? School cafeteria workers, often fondly referred to as “lunch ladies,” prepare and serve hundreds of meals each week to help kids stave off hunger. If you have school-age children, working as a lunch lady will let you keep the same daily schedule as your kids, with time off for holidays and summer vacation. The average school cafeteria worker earns about $20,000 per year.

Job Description

The proper name for the job is “school food service assistant.” In part, it's because many schools provide more than lunch. According to the Food Research and Action Center, 92.5 percent of schools that serve lunch also serve breakfast. The work begins with meal planning under the direction of the head cook. The U.S. Department of Agriculture provides nutrition guidelines that must be taken into account. In addition to helping prepare and serve the food, the food service assistant must be knowledgeable about safety and cleanliness in the kitchen. Duties typically include cleaning the utensils, machines and equipment, storing food properly, and maintaining the correct temperature on the food served. Food service assistants take inventory and keep records. They may serve as cashiers, accepting payments directly from students and making change. The physical requirements are moderately demanding, as food service workers spend most of their day standing and may be required to lift up to 50 pounds.

Education Requirements

No formal education is required to become a food service assistant. Most employers look for a minimum of a high school diploma or its equivalent. Taking classes at a vocational-technical school or community college in nutrition and food preparation is helpful but usually not necessary. On-the-job training is typically provided, including training for the state and local certifications in sanitation and food safety that are required. A degree in culinary arts or nutrition may qualify you for a management position and higher pay.

About the Industry

Research performed by The Brookings Institution reveals improved academic performance in students who eat a healthy lunch. The most-dramatic improvement was shown among students receiving reduced-price or free meals, since many in this group would not otherwise have much to eat. More than 95,000 schools participate in the National School Lunch Program that makes affordable meals available. Food service assistants are also needed in private schools and residential programs for children.

Years of Experience

The median hourly salary for a food service assistant is $9.97. Median means that half the people in the job earn more, while half earn less. About half of all workers get medical benefits, and about 20 percent also get dental benefits. Average annual salaries are as follows:

  • Entry-level: $18,800
  • Mid-career: $20,600
  • Experienced: $22,800
  • Late-career: $26,000

Job Growth Trend

Although the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does not provide information specifically on school food service workers, it estimates that jobs in the food service industry in general will grow by about 8 percent over the next decade, which is average growth compared to all other jobs. School cafeteria workers typically experience a high level of job satisfaction. Even though the pay is low, workers like the environment and “mother’s hours,” a schedule that allows them to be home with their own children.


Denise Dayton is a a freelance writer who specializes in business, education and technology. She has written for, Library Journal, The Searcher, Bureau of Education and Research, and corporate clients.

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