Wednesday, October 20, 2010

School lunch.

I have been reading and re-reading this post in reference to the current battle over school budget cuts in Great Britain and alternately weeping from rage and heartbreak.

I grew up in the south end of Seattle. We lived on a nice street, the highest in the neighborhood, with sweeping views of Lake Washington and the mountains beyond. But the local elementary school and high school were down in the valley below, in one of the city's poorer neighborhoods. I had tested into what was then called the Horizon program, which meant that our math and writing skills were one grade ahead of the average. Four grades - 1st through 4th - shared a vast space which contained three open classrooms, one central common area, and a small lab; we were in a newer wing of the building, separated from the rest of the school. Our paths rarely crossed those of other students, save for one day when an older boy tried to beat me up on my way home from school. I escaped with a scraped knee and was never allowed to walk home alone again.

It was an interesting time, the mid-to-late-80's. M. told me the other night that she had been bussed into our school district because of the Horizon program but also because of "forced integration." That part I don't remember. What I remember is that we spoke in hushed tones on the playground about the supposed drug house down the street and joked that classmates who wore red were "Bloods" and those who wore blue were "Crips" (rival gangs). I don't know if there were any actual gang wars going on but I remember used needles and condoms ("Eeeewwww!!" we said) on the playground and a drive-by shooting late one summer, before school started. Then I left for the manicured grounds of the city's most expensive private school, in fifth grade, and never looked back.

But this is all irrelevant, or perhaps it isn't. We were talking about school lunch. Our elementary school served breakfast and lunch, every day. I usually ate breakfast at home - whole wheat toast, English muffins, oatmeal, cold cereal, congee, or fruit and yogurt - but I also dimly remember school cafeteria pancakes, or perhaps it was French toast, with sausage, maybe some fruit, maybe orange juice in a plastic foil-sealed cup, like the ones they give you on airplanes. It was cheap, like the lunches, which I also occasionally ate (flabby pizzas, corn dogs, Salisbury steak), washed down with plain or chocolate milk (a rare treat). I think it cost a dollar. And for many kids, it was free or otherwise discounted. I wasn't really conscious of it at the time; I led a happy, sheltered, middle-class life that I later came to understand was incredibly privileged. I remember being shocked that some kids ate their lunches as if it were the best thing they'd ever tasted. I think about it now, and it breaks my heart.

I think that people - like Jamie Oliver, and others, like a friend, following his example - who are trying to change the way children eat are doing an amazing, incredible thing. In one sense, the system (as it stood 20 years ago) was doing one good thing: it made sure that children got fed, twice a day. In another sense, it wasn't: the food was crap, except for those for whom it was the best thing they had. It is part of a larger problem - where does the responsibility lie? On the school system which can't afford it, or on the parents who can't afford it? The more I think about it - and I say this as someone who is single and childless and doesn't see that changing anytime soon - the more it makes my heart ache. I don't have any understanding of what it must be like to have to send my child to school hungry. I hope I never do.

Twenty years have passed since I last ate in that elementary school cafeteria. I still remember the flimsy partitioned foil trays and the plastic sporks, the crates of half-pint milk cartons. We have to do better.

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