Saved by the Bell

How childhood poverty and working in the school cafeteria shaped a food writer’s connection with her subject

Photo by Emma Rodelius (CC BY-NC 2.0)

One thing I learned when I was a kid is that there are two kinds of poor. There’s the kind of poor that means your family lives in a drafty house and can’t afford vacations, and there’s the kind of poor that means your clothes and groceries come from church donation boxes. Mine fell into the latter category: not quite homeless, but definitely poor-poor.

Growing up below the poverty line meant I didn’t always get enough to eat, which in turn meant I ate any food that happened into my field of vision, whether it be odd nuts and berries off neighborhood landscaping or the pots of beans flavored with a ham bone and a bay leaf that were my mom’s go-to culinary contribution. If I turned my nose up, it meant I didn’t get anything for dinner, and probably meant I’d get my ass whupped, too, depending on my dad’s tolerance for bullshit on any given night. Most of the time I ate like I had a tapeworm, hoovering pretty much anything that was put in front of me.

I especially loved cafeteria food. School lunches have been the butt of jokes since they became widespread during the Great Depression, and I’d hazard that for some kids cafeteria meals were the worst part of the school day. Some kids only ate school lunch because they were relegated to it, when their parents were too busy to shove a Lunchables and a Capri Sun into their Smurfs lunch box. I didn’t have a choice, but I didn’t mind. 

Even at their worst, school lunches were a lot better than my dad’s half-assed attempts at feeding my brother and me. During summer break, when our care was left up to our disinterested father, he’d make sandwiches of sliced cold hot dogs and ketchup on generic white bread, or a similarly appetizing combo of mayo and government issued peanut butter. School lunches were at least somewhat nutritionally balanced, and to me they were deeply satisfying comfort foods. 

Some kids’ parents paid full price for the luxury of not having to rustle a lunch together, some paid a reduced price for a purple lunch ticket. Mine paid nothing for my hot lunch. I don’t know whether or not other kids knew that my lunch had been bought with their parents’ tax dollars, but the cafeteria was where I started to catch first glimpses of how different I was from my classmates.

What I ate for lunch on any given day had been preordained by Portland Public Schools nutritionists, and it was already up on the classroom wall next to the italic alphabets, Roman numerals, and star-spangled performance charts. Pizza and chickenwiches were perennial favorites, of course, and more exotic-sounding fare like turkey à la king had me swooning in visions of ermine-bedecked monarchs, lavishly supping upon the shredded turkey suspended in thin, beige gravy ladled over a perfect hemisphere of instant mashed potatoes. There were carrot coins with runny, dill-flecked ranch. There was chocolate milk on Fridays. I didn’t really care what was on the menu. I just liked sitting down to the warm blanket of predictability. The nourishment was a happy side effect. 

 

The lunch bell rang, and we’d line up outside the cafeteria doors, purple tickets in hand. I looked forward to seeing the cafeteria ladies every day. Their tidy uniforms—baby blue paper hairnet, white apron and polyethylene gloves, name tag that read “Cyndi” or “Lynnette”—belied their imperfect lives. They scratched their foreheads with the back of their gloved wrists. They had a wicked case of The Mondays. They silently counted down the minutes until their next smoke break behind the school dumpsters, after the bell had chased all the kids back to class. I desperately wanted to be one of them.

By the time I started sixth grade, my dad finally got a job, and we no longer qualified for food stamps. My folks were still plenty broke, though, and they heartily encouraged my precocious financial independence. So I earned my lunch every day by donning that proud uniform and joining the cafeteria lady workforce. 

Of the many benefits to working in the cafeteria, a major plus was relief from the indignity of having nowhere to sit in the cafeteria—in fact, I wouldn’t even get to eat until the cafeteria had already mostly cleared out for recess. Being on shift made me too busy to be rejected.  

Working in the cafeteria ended up being one more way for me to alienate myself from my peers. My stringy hair, thick bifocal glasses, and Newberry’s wardrobe (think pastel-turquoise polyester sweats and imitation Keds with blue marker ink on the heel) were the first alert to my peers that I’d be an easy target. My propensity for pointing out Mrs. Reinhorn’s spelling errors in front of the homeroom class was another tip-off. If all that didn’t warrant the name-calling and attempts to lock me in the girls’ room, my paper hairnet and plastic gloves surely did.

My station in life may have been perfectly exposed behind that plexiglass sneeze-guard, but it was also a bulletproof shield that protected me. Behind the steam table of hotel pans I was one of the crew, in the trenches with a few of my fellow poor kids, sharing an unspoken code with the cafeteria ladies: I must be one of them, or I wouldn’t be working for my lunch at eleven years old.

Working in the cafeteria didn’t just teach me the value of honest work, it also gave me a perch from which I could safely observe others. Sometimes I was put in charge of taking the teachers’ lunch orders from a Dutch door that led from the cafeteria kitchen to the secret lair where the staff ate their lunches. A teacher would lean in the window and bark out her order. If I saw one coming, I’d sometimes surprise her by remembering her “usual” and announcing her order before she had a chance. Serving the teachers their lunches offered me a glimpse into their preferences, a second-hand peek into their private lives. One of the younger teachers used ketchup as salad dressing, changing my opinion of her forever. I may have been poor, but even I knew that was an insipid use for ketchup. She suddenly went from being cool to completely beneath me.

Sometimes I went into the walk-in refrigerator and drank more than my daily allowance of chocolate milk or ate an extra pudding cup. The devil on one shoulder defended herself against the angel on the other, and I convinced myself that I was allowed some recompense for the unfair hand I was dealt in life.

 

By the time I reached tenth grade, my parents had finally climbed their way into the middle class. Nonetheless, when my teenage rebellion drove me to vegetarianism, my parents responded by making me responsible for my own meals. I began buying my own groceries with money earned at a mall job and taught myself to cook them: tofu burritos and crumbly veggie burgers on whole grain buns became new staples. To my parents, having a freezer full of ready-made meals—relief from the drudgery of cooking—was an ultimate marker of success, and I don’t think my mom ever cooked another pot of beans again. Decades later, having unlimited access to food is a privilege I never take for granted, but I still cook beans on a weekly basis. 

Every year now, as summer begins its long hibernal drawl and my young son returns home from his first day of school, I inevitably peruse the school lunch calendar that returns with him, and it never fails to stir up some dust I thought long settled. They don’t warn you about this when you become a parent: no matter how differently you’ve constructed your adult life from the one you were given in birth, no matter how distant from your family or how different your present circumstances, ghosts of your childhood will come knocking. School lunches remain a powerful tether to my past; the reminders of childhood trauma can be painful, but the foods can remain a balm.

Comments

1 comments have been posted.

We share so much history, although children weren't allowed as lunch ladies in my day, and food stamps were a distant dream. If I've learned nothing else about marriage, it's that children who grew up food-insecure should not marry people whose parents owned a grocery store! And Mister Rogers wrote that parents were often shaken by "earthquakes from the past." All the time, my friend; all the time.

Peggy Coquet | March 2021 | Brunswick, GA

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