Lucy Schaeffer’s new book “School Lunch” pairs photos and stories of school lunch from everyday strangers, family, and celebrities.
“School Lunch: Unpacking Our Shared Stories was born with my “mom brain” combined with my “photographer brain,” Lucy Schaeffer writes. In 2016, Schaeffer, agonizing over her own kids lunchboxes while fascinated by the school lunch patterns of previous generations, began a journey to photograph the wide swathe of experiences around preparing and packing lunch.
The New York City-based photographer began interviewing her friends, family, Lyft drivers, celebrity chefs…anyone who would give her some time, about their experiences. She enlisted food stylist Chris Basrsh and prop stylist Martha Bernabe to help her recreate the meals while scouring the internet for vintage props, lunchboxes and other ephemera to match the food and stories.
Four years later, her collection of experiences culminates in a heartwarming and diverse book that the photographer says, “makes me feel a bit better about humanity.”
We speak with Schaeffer to learn more.
The Luupe: One of the first things we noticed was the range of celebrities and “everyday” people. Why was this important to you?
Lucy Schaeffer: When I started this project, I was first interested in multi-generational lunches and international lunches. I wanted to see how school lunch from three generations in the same family could be three completely different experiences, especially in families who immigrated to the US.
My very first subjects, before I was even thinking about a book, were relatives and friends in my network that came from diverse backgrounds. The Persian aunt of my close friend, a Puerto Rican mother and grandmother of my daughter’s classmate, my Korean father-in-law, my Filipino sister-in-law…being in Brooklyn made these connections and exploration so easy.
Rather than satisfy, the initial stories I collected only served to feed my curiosity on the subject. I was surprised how much everyone had to say about their lunch, and how vivid their memories were. I also realized that literally anyone was fair game to interview. No matter who you are now, you were once a little kid eating school lunch. That’s when I started to get curious about what celebrities might have had for school lunch, specifically ones who were now in prominent positions in the food world.
Padma Lakshmi was seven once, what did she eat at school, and how does she view that memory now? I followed my own whimsical list—what did someone who grew up in the circus eat? How about Jacques Pepin? As my collection of stories grew, so did my desire to get as diverse a group of adults as possible.
The Luupe: Backing up a bit, how did this project start?
Schaeffer: This project started during the last days of summer, in August of 2016. I was realizing it would soon be time to start packing school lunches for my kids, a chore I was dreading. I felt like I was already out of ideas of what to pack. My mind wandered to my own lunch as a kid, and then the cute bento boxes I had as an exchange student in Japan.
I started to think about my parent’s generation and I wondered what their lunch was like. Was it easier to pack? Healthier? Less healthy? I also thought about adults I knew who were super picky as kids and how they had turned out just fine—so maybe it didn’t matter at all what I packed for lunch. Or maybe it did.
The Luupe: What did your initial process look like?
Schaeffer: With all those random ideas swirling in my head I decided to do a School Lunch test shoot where I’d interview and few people and then recreate their lunches in the studio. I planned to collaborate with a couple stylists and make a little back-to-school promo piece that I could send around as a mailer in September.
What happened instead was the beginning of a 3-year-long personal project. The stylists that I recruited to work with me on the first food shoot, Martha Bernabe (props) and Chris Barsch (food), ended up getting hooked, too, which I am deeply grateful for. Martha and Chris are amazingly talented creative collaborators and people. We had so much fun together making this book, even before there was any real tangible goal to it. We would squeeze shoots in whenever our schedules allowed and I had a new batch ready.
The Luupe: That’s awesome. We all have a connection to school lunch cafeteria food. You touch on this a bit with your family history, but what’s your story and connection?
Schaeffer: My own story is not terribly riveting! I had mostly packed lunch (PB&J’s, chips, carrot sticks, Little Debbie treat if I was lucky) except for Fridays when I would get the school pizza. But even what felt run-of-the-mill to me was in fact part of my own culture and generation. I did have a metal Pigs in Space lunchbox…
Once I started digging into people’s experiences, I was so floored by the diversity of memories and emotions I uncovered. Some conversations I had felt so similar to my own experience and some were vastly different. This is what I loved.
The Luupe: What was your biggest discovery or unexpected/surprising and/or humbling learning from making this work?
Schaeffer: It was hard to hear the stories where kids just didn’t have enough food or had other trauma. George Foreman used to blow up an empty paper bag and bring it to school so that the other kids wouldn’t know his family couldn’t afford lunch. Stories like that broke my heart. Food insecurity in children is something our nation and the world needs to work harder to solve.
The Luupe: This book comes out as we’re “getting back to work/ school/ etc” from over a year of being isolated, likely eating at home, without the large scale social dynamic. Does its timing for you give you new insights into the work, etc?
The original release date for the book was actually June 2020 but, for obvious reasons, my editors at Running Press and I decided to push the release date to August 2021. That timing has meant that I’ve been waiting for this moment for a really long time! I think the timing is perfect now, though. Fingers crossed, I’m hoping we all have a return to more full in-person school and everyone will have to remember school lunch again.
The Luupe: The cultural landscape of this book is incredibly diverse, with (as the press release states) revealing commonalities across cultures. How did you ensure that the project effectively and sensitively approached different cultures?
Schaeffer: I hope that it did! I really didn’t have a roadmap for this so took my cues from each and every subject I interviewed. I just tried to be open, curious, and respectful, and then tell their story in their words. I had this big Excel document filled with different types of people I was trying to find to include and food cultures I was curious about. I got to a lot of them but feel like even with 70 stories it is in no way a comprehensive collection. Room for a sequel!
The Luupe: You’re a successful commercial and editorial photographer. Did this personal work shift, impact, or reveal anything to you about your commercial work?
Schaeffer: This personal project forced me to put myself out there and be active rather than reactive. When I receive a commercial assignment, I have to be completely in-tune with my client and what their needs and goals are for the shoot. Of course I put my own spin on it, and they are hiring me because we are already a good match aesthetically, but at the end of the day, my shoot is reacting to what they have given me as an assignment.
The Luupe: A kind of creative freedom…
Schaeffer: With School Lunch, it could be anything I wanted. I had to be active and come up with my list of subjects and then decide what to ask those subjects and how to portray them in their portrait, as well as what story to tell with their re-created lunch shot. It was incredibly freeing and fun! I think having fun and being actively engaged in idea creation is incredibly important.
The Luupe: Did you notice a difference in your creative process specifically?
Schaeffer: No matter who my commercial client is, I am never, ever hired to make food look bad. But with School Lunch we sometimes got to do just that. Food stylist Chris Barsch, and I gleefully pressed apples into the soft sides of sandwiches to make that dent so many of us remember, or let cheese go cold and congealed, beans overcooked until their color faded away, and all the things you’d never get to do on a “regular” shoot.
Some of the food is yummy in the book, but when the memory was of gross food we had a lot of fun staying true to that memory. There’s one shot in the book, from the “gross out table” where we got live worms and dried crickets and mixed jello with mustard packets to fit the memory. It was super fun, until we all actually started to feel sick. Then we figured we must have gotten the shot.
The Luupe: We love that you’re also selling some really fun and nostalgic school lunch items on the website for your book. How did you curate this selection?
Schaeffer: Those are leftover props I purchased for the book! I had to do so much online research to get exactly the right props for every re-created lunch shot.
For example, if someone said they had a lunch box, I asked them if it was plastic or metal, and which characters they remembered seeing on it. Then I calculated what year it would have been and went to eBay and Etsy to get just the right pieces to complete their lunch memory (often checking back in with the subject to confirm I had a good match). I was meticulous about all of the little details—if they said they had chips in a baggie I wanted to know if it was fold-over or ziplock, and if the chips got smashed during the day or stayed whole.
The Luupe: Wow!
Schaeffer: I sourced props from all over the world for the international lunch stories. I also had to track down or retouch old packaging, school lunch stamp books, vintage food stamps, lunch trays, etc. Some things, like the antique school desk for my mother’s story I rented from film prop houses.
I pulled as much as I could in advance and then worked together with Martha Bernabe to bring it all to life on our shoot days. She contributed her amazing styling prowess as well as items from her collection at Prop Haus to round-out the authenticity of each shot.
I showed each lunch shot to the subject right away, sometimes while we were still on-set. Handling someone’s childhood memories and getting it right was super important to me. The times when people got teary or emotional seeing the shots were the best reward.