Time to Eat! The Right to a Duty-Free Lunch

Boston educators, especially elementary school teachers, did not always have the right to a duty-free lunch. So the BTU made it one of their earliest contract demands.

Just a few quiet minutes to yourself to eat lunch, every day – everyone deserves that, right? Well, for decades Boston educators, especially elementary school teachers, did not have a guaranteed right to a duty-free lunch.

That’s why the BTU made it one of their earliest contract demands.

The calls for a duty-free lunch started early. The Boston Union Teacher newspaper for December 1963 included “duty-free lunch” in a list of topics to discuss at an upcoming membership meeting at the Hotel Bradford. (Side-note: The same issue contained a touching memorial to John F. Kennedy, whose sudden assassination shocked the world only the month before on November 22, 1963.)

Lunchbox 1980s” via Wikimedia Commons (Greg Mote from Los Angeles, USA, CC BY 2.0)

Pilot Program

The union’s focus on providing teachers with enough time to actually sit down and eat began to be realized by 1967. In the 1967 Sept-Oct issue, an article by John Gearin lays out “the intention of  the  Union and  the Committee to provide duty-free lunch for all Boston teachers” and celebrates key contract gains on this front:

  • “Over 600, or more than one-third of Boston’s elementary teachers, will enjoy a duty-free lunch period this year. Eighteen of the largest elementary schools have been added to the twelve covered by the  pilot program by the first contract.
  • All junior high and high school teachers in schools with cafeterias are to have a duty-free lunch period at the usual eating time. 
  • A joint study by the Union and the Committee will be made to provide duty-free lunch for other junior high and high school teachers.”

Note that teachers were asking for the right to eat lunch “at the usual eating time.” No one should be forced to eat lunch at 10:30 in the morning or 2:00 in the afternoon, just so they would be available to supervise the children’s lunch. Teachers were asking for the right to sit down and eat at an actual, reasonable lunch time.

Duty-Free Lunch for All

The pressure for duty-free lunch continued to build until, in March-April 1968, the Duty Free Lunch program expanded to cover a total of two-thirds of all elementary teachers, as well as teachers in 7th and 8th grades in schools that didn’t have cafeterias.

But that wasn’t sufficient. The BTU further demanded that, effective September 1, 1969,  every elementary teacher and every teacher in buildings without cafeterias be guaranteed an adequate duty-free lunch period.

And the Boston School Committee agreed. In September 1969, the contract for the 1969-70 school year stipulated the extension of duty-free lunch to all elementary schools, and the hiring of aides to cover classrooms so teachers would have time to eat lunch.

Space Cadet Lunchbox” via Wikimedia Commons (Davidmerkoski, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Protecting the Right to Eat in Peace

Despite these early contract gains, it could still be hard to protect that small oasis of time in your day to eat lunch. A February 1975 article by Cathy Doucette details the many tasks that could often infringe upon this sliver of time, especially for elementary school teachers.

  • Is the lunch monitor consistently ‘a few minutes’ late? Does one of your kindergarten children’s parents arrive late every day to pick up a  child or come too  early for the afternoon session, leaving you to watch the child? If so, you are losing your right to a forty-minute  lunch period.
  • If you  are constantly called back to your classroom during lunch because a child is misbehaving, you do not have a duty-free lunch. 
  • Don’t  treat  infringements on your contractual rights lightly. If you are being deprived of any part of your  forty-minute, duty-free lunch, you have a legitimate grievance which your building representative will help  you resolve. 

The article reminds teachers they have the right to eat in peace, and that their BTU Building Representatives are ready to help ensure that that happens.

The struggle for adequate time to eat continued to be an important win for the BTU. A recap of “44 Years of Contractual Gains” in the September 2009 issue celebrates the early wins for a duty-free lunch.

“Historical Gains, Contract by Contract, of Improved BTU Benefits and Working Conditions for Teachers.” Courtesy of University Archives and Special Collections, UMass Boston. Boston Union Teacher, September, 2009.

The question continues to be relevant, as the same issue also mentions a 2000 win for five extra minutes added to secondary teachers’ guaranteed duty-free lunch periods.

Because everyone deserves enough time to eat their lunch!

For more fun vintage lunchbox images click here. For a 2019 documentary about getting more healthy lunch options into Boston schools, click here.

Eleanor Katari is a writer, editor, former teacher, and currently a Graduate Student in Public History at UMass Boston. She used to work at a daycare center and she remembers shoveling half a yogurt in her face while dealing with a crying toddler, a demanding parent, and a health inspector trying to check if we’ve sanitized the forks properly, all while theoretically on her lunch break. She believes everyone deserves to have time to sit down and eat their lunch.

By Eleanor E Katari

Eleanor Katari has been a writer, editor, teacher, public school parent, and museum educator. She is currently a Graduate Student in Public History at UMass Boston.

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