When he was in 3rd grade, and already resisting the daily grind of attending a full day of school, my son said the funniest, saddest thing I have heard a kid say as we were pulling into the drive of his elementary school. “Here we are, Chump Elementary!”. Stunned, I stopped the car and looked back at him and said, “Well, your job is to stay 3 steps ahead of all the chumps, okay? When you grow up, you will discover that a lot of chumps will be your boss.” Hardly the motivating piece of advice he was possibly looking for, my son just sighed and stepped out of the car. I could almost feel the heaviness in his heart as, each day, he watched the clock until dismissal time.
“What were your favorite parts of the day,” I would cheerily ask, hoping for a different answer each afternoon when we would reunite.
“Lunch and recess. Everything else was boring”
The response never wavered or varied. Always the same. Even today, 7 years later, I get the same answer.
So I began asking myself, what is it about lunch that it is the highlight of his day? I know the food is not good. I took myself back to my elementary days. Funny how one’s sensory memory is so strong: I can place myself there, at St. Eustachius Catholic School, eating a healthy portion of homemade chicken and dumplings followed by a freshly baked cinnamon roll made by Florence Scherer’s capable and caring hands. She was the wife of a local farmer and easily fed the 100+ students (k-8) in our school the heartiest, most sumptuous of healthy farm fare every single day. How I loved school lunch!! For me, fortunately, a child of the 70’s, it was still about the great food in the lunchroom.
Today’s pubic school lunches are woefully less desirable than Mrs. Scherer’s delicious grub. I was a lunch lady. I was a “chump,” a part of the Federally regulated “system” that endeavors to adequately nourish schoolchildren across America. What a joke.
1 in 5 children live in “food insecure” households. In many large cities, as many as 90 percent of the public school students qualify for the free lunch program based on poverty guidelines: they are living in a household of 4 earning less than $31,005.00/year. The kids that qualify for a “reduced-rate” lunch (still considered food insecure households) are living in households with incomes of under $44,123.
Teachers report having the most difficulty with classroom management on Mondays and Fridays. Why? Because, on Mondays, students coming from food insecure households have possibly spent the majority of their time away from school in a state of hunger. One hungry student in a report I recently read admitted, “I would stare at the teacher and imagine her as a banana, I was so hungry. It was all I could think of.” And on Fridays, the learning environment is once again tainted by students’ obsession over food: hungry children were burdened by thoughts of returning to their food insecure households for long weekends. The “backpack program,” which discreetly provides qualifying students with bags stocked with nutritious foods like peanut butter to sustain them over the weekends, helps a little. But I have heard reports from school social workers about students who gorge themselves on the bus ride home with their backpack bounty to avoid having to share it with “unworthy” family members at home.
Then there is the remaining 30 percent of students in an average public school environment that fall through the poverty guideline cracks yet still live in food insecure households because their parent(s) don’t make enough money to buy enough food to satisfy their needs.
Kids come to school hungry and tired, not ready to learn. Now schools are left to deal with not only the education of students but they must also the address the number one reason why students are not motivated to learn. Lack of sufficient food. Yet, as a Lunch Lady, I personally witnessed a huge amount of wastefulness – I would ask myself, “if these kids are poor and hungry, why is so much food going to waste?”. Because it tastes TERRIBLE!!!
I have been doing a lot of reading about food cooperatives and school lunch programs in cities like Boston that are applying knowledge and techniques from farm-to-table eating that are resulting in better food, prepared in ways that kids like, and resulting in less waste and therefore sustainability. This is the ideal – for all the school-aged children across America.
Are you totally depressed yet? I am just writing about this because I am so sick of the problem. And I think the solution, having been on the “inside” of the public school nutrition program, is for public schools to move away from federally funded nutrition programs and work with communities to address the nutritional needs of students. This won’t happen overnight. It is going to require the guidance and intelligence garnered from all the active social justice, sustainability, food-growing and child-centered wellness initiatives working together.
To learn more about the government’s “Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act” and the current guidelines/implementation for schools to be reimbursed based on income eligibility guidelines (the system that isn’t working), visit the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service at: www.fns.usda.gov/nslp/history_4.
To learn about the exciting partnerships, ventures, think tanks and social justice movements around our nation dedicated to addressing the problem of childhood hunger/food insecurity in America, go to sites like these:
There is still so much to learn but I am convinced that the solution to the problem begins with addressing building communities focused on reducing waste and building food sustainability for all.
I became a Lunch Lady because of my ridiculous fantasy that the lunchroom could once again be a happy, friendly place where all children were treated well and left satisfied. On the day I witnessed a darling 6th grade boy maliciously refused a full lunch by the Head Lunch Lady because his account balance was below negative $6.00, I knew my efforts would be better spent on finding a solution to the absurd problem of food insecurity.
After all, it takes a WORLD CLASS BI*!@ to refuse a kid even a lousy lunch on his birthday!!!!