Sorry, Kids, But The Lunch Lady Is Just Another Chump

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:

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!!!!




An Apple Crisp for Suri

Kitchen-Parade-2009-Apple-Crisp-400-776195 Last year, I decided to do several things to “educate” myself in hopes it might lead me to my next “thing” in life.  I enrolled in Community College – but it didn’t take long for me to realize what a dumb idea that was.  I’d been away from the rigors of school too long.  THAT’S the “big lesson” I learned from that.  But earlier in the year I committed to volunteering a few days each month at a local Food Pantry.  Starting to get the sense that this is where my “big learning” took place? For months, I was too shy to work directly with the visitors to the pantry – I would smile and greet them while packing away food items in the back.  It took a lot of courage for me to be ready to face them one-on-one and feel that I could answer questions with confidence and sufficient cheer.  You see, I am a bit of a crybaby!  When I see suffering, sometimes I cry.  And I certainly did not want to repeat that horrific scene from 25 years ago when I broke down in tears in front of a Cancer Survivors group as their guest speaker!  I was not expecting their faces to be so young – I panicked and suddenly the room closed in on me and I got hot and then the tears started rolling down my cheeks in spite of my wish to appear “professional.”  It happens.  Vulnerability.  Compassion.  It catches us by surprise throughout life.  Well, it was never going to catch me by surprise again.  So I remained in the back of the Food Pantry dutifully stuffing bags for people to take home. Until the day Margaret told me she needed me at the front counter.  She was too busy to do her ordinary job at the Pantry that day and I had been there more than long enough to be able to check id’s and cross off names.  I heaved a big sigh and headed over towards the counter.  I tried not to let Margaret see the enormous panic I was feeling as the line outside the door began to grow.  One by one, our visitors politely stepped inside our Food Pantry and graciously accepted whatever we had to offer that morning.

Things were going really well.  Until the thing that caught me off guard happened.  Until the opposite of my “image” of what a Food Pantry patron ought to look like stepped up to my counter.

He was in is early 40’s, very physically capable looking and quite handsome.  And his smile and cheerful attitude would have made you think he was shopping somewhere really special.  I realized I had a few misguided preconceptions about pride before this moment, too.  As naturally as if we were longtime friends, he initiated the conversation, “Oh, my goodness!   You have fresh apples today!  I have already picked up my oats and my flour.  Is that butter I see behind the apples, also,” he pointed toward the back of the table I was managing but that thing was starting to happen to me when I am caught off guard by big emotions – I could not see anything around me and I was getting hot!!!!  Margaret noticed right away I was not myself and, fearing I might be afraid of this man, she answered very nonchalantly, “Yes, we have lots of free butter for you today!”.  That helped, I had a moment to take a breath.  The man smiled an even bigger grin and let out a robust laugh then said, “Suri is going to be so happy when she gets home from school today!”. Before I could ask, he started to tell me, “Suri’s my girl – it’s just the two of us.  She’s five and she loves school.  And more than that, she LOVES a fresh apple crisp!.”  I began placing fresh apples and butter in a bag for the gentleman and my thoughts immediately went to my own children when I heard his words.  I love baking for my kids, too – and I especially love surprising them with their favorite treats after a long day at school.  We’re not so awfully different, then, from our Food Pantry patrons, are we?

After Suri’s Dad was long gone and we were preparing to close the Pantry for the weekend, I noticed a slip of paper that someone had dropped in the hallway.  When I looked at it, I recognized Suri’s Dad’s name and the date was the same day.  Before coming to the Food Pantry, Suri’s Dad did something I’ll bet he hated – so he’d have weekend cash for his little girl.  He had been to a Pawn Shop and left some dvd’s – and in exchange, he was paid $10.00 plus 423% interest due when he retrieved his belongings!  But precious Suri would have her apple crisp and her Dad will have provided for his child – and experienced the joy we all do as parents when we are able to give our children special treats.  He just had to pay a much bigger price than most of us to do it. This lesson is sticking with me.  It makes me profoundly humble for all the abundance in my life.  It makes me appreciate that unique feeling that not all parents can enjoy all the time – of being able to provide for my children. For to give really is much better than to receive!!!