Young readers will raise a glass—or rather, a carton of milk—to the often-overlooked school cafeteria employees on May 6 for the 10th anniversary of School Lunch Hero Day. What began as a humble testament by author-illustrator Jarrett J. Krosoczka (Lunch Lady) to his former school lunch ladies has morphed into a global celebration that recognizes the hard work and the hot meals prepared for students all over the world.

The idea for the first-ever School Lunch Hero Day was conceived on May 3, 2012. This marked three years after the publication of the first Lunch Lady graphic novels, when Krosoczka had invited had invited Jean Cariglia and Betty Pastore from his Worcester, Mass., elementary school (the inspiration for his books) to his launch event at the public library. “I presented them with art and books, and a standing-room-only crowd, filled with people they fed over the years, erupted into thunderous applause,” he told PW. Two years later at Cariglia’s wake, Krosoczka was touched by the family’s decision to place the Lunch Lady artwork near her casket. “Jean’s widow told me how monumental that gesture back at the library had been for her and how it validated her life’s work,” Krosoczka recalled. “ ‘Nobody ever thanks the lunch lady,’ [her husband] lamented.”

Mulling over these words on the drive home, Krosoczka was inspired to create an event for students to share their gratitude for their cafeteria staff: writing cards, drawing pictures, and ultimately giving thanks. While the inaugural event took place on Cariglia’s birthday, the initiative is reserved for the first Friday in May each year.

Going Back for Seconds

School Lunch Hero Day has evolved into a burgeoning program over the past decade, with social media (using the hashtag #SchoolLunchHeroDay on Instagram and Twitter) and word of mouth helping to drive participation. Students have composed poems, raps, and songs, created artwork, and even choreographed dance numbers. “It is awe-inspiring, and it all happens because everyone so appreciates all of the hard work that ensures kids’ bellies are full, so they are ready to learn,” Krosoczka said.

Partnering with the School Nutrition Association, the author-illustrator has utilized the organization’s real-world perspective and feedback, tweaking his character portrayals to represent a broader, more inclusive culture. “I’ve come to know that while some in the school food industry view the term ‘lunch lady’ as endearing, others detest it and prefer ‘school nutrition professional,’ ” Krosoczka shared. “To better reflect the people we are celebrating, I created a diverse group of inclusive characters in the style of the Lunch Lady graphic novels. And yes, even a few ‘lunch dudes.’ ” Downloadable images, bilingual greeting cards, and bookplate labels for School Lunch Hero Day can be found here.

Now more than ever, Krosoczka believes lunch heroes should be recognized for their tireless efforts in the wake of the pandemic. Once schools largely returned to in-person learning, he credited food service people among the ranks of those who prepared students for a warm welcome. When asked if he thought his beloved lunch ladies would have joined in the 10th anniversary festivities, Krosoczka answered unequivocally: “Are you kidding me? Jean and Betty would be out there signing their copies of my books!” (Pastore died in 2018.) And as to what they’d be whipping up for a celebratory meal? The same food that lured Krosoczka across the hall from the school library, into the kitchen: “I still associate that time reading books with the smell (and taste) of their signature dish: the pizza burger,” he said.