Down in Lunch Lady Land

I just read an article about a lunch lady who threw away a piece of pizza in front of a kid because he had a $15 bill that wasn’t paid. My head wanted to shake so violently that I would end up seeing stars or birds, but instead of that, I’m here, on my blog, telling you a story. You see, my momma was a lunch lady. She was. True story. She was a myriad of other things in her lifetime too. She took other low-paying, menial jobs to support herself and her four kids, including: A housekeeper, a babysitter, and a bartender, among others, and for a little while, when I was in middle school and then in high school, she was a lunch lady.

I remember this because there is a distinct string of shame that comes from walking through the lunch line, with your “free lunch” card, seeing your mom doing the dishes in the back, waiting to see if she could catch a glimpse of you and give you a little smile, or maybe, if your 8th grade reputation allowed, a small wave. I remember people walking up behind me asking, “Missy, is that your mom making the rolls?” I’d tell them yes, because there was no point in lying, and some of the kids would laugh, and some of them would say, “Your mom makes great rolls.” And I’d smile. Cause she really did. And she was very nice to ALL the kids. In fact, she was too nice. She was often reprimanded for letting kids grab two rolls, or an extra slice of pizza. She never worked the registers, probably because she knew she could never turn a kid away, money or not.

Because there has always been a desire to turn kids away.

That sounds horrific doesn’t it. But in middle school, they turned kids away. In high school, some kids would go through the line twice. Once to get their own food, and once to get a plate for a friend. That’s a real thing that happened. And still does. And lunch ladies like my mom saw this happen. And lunch ladies like my mom threw an extra roll on the tray. Then there are the others.

In case you don’t know, lunch ladies don’t roll in the big salaries like they probably should. In fact, a quick Google search tells me that locally, in DeKalb County, Georgia, lunch ladies are making, on average, $13/hr. That’s $520 a week, before taxes. That’s if they have a full-time gig. My mom, and many like her, were part-timers, who would get there about 8 am and be gone by 1 pm. They were floaters too. Called wherever they needed to be, whenever they needed to be there. But let’s say, for the sake of this here blog, that a full-time lunch lady makes $500 a week, pre-taxes. Let’s also say she has two kids at home, and is a single mom. Whew. That’s not a lot of money. In fact, in most school districts, that lunch lady’s own kids would qualify for free or reduced lunch. Like I did when my mom was a lunch lady.

So here I am, wondering how on Earth a lunch lady, whose kids at some point in their life have probably received free or reduced lunch, can take a piece of pizza off a tray while a kid is standing in line and throw it in the trash only to replace it with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. There’s like, uh, lots of things wrong with that, right?

First, there’s the wasting of food.

Then there’s the humiliation.

Then there’s the evident lack of compassion, either on the part of the lunch lady or, I suspect, the school, or the school district, or maybe just the cafeteria manager. But I do suspect, at least I want to suspect, that this is a top-down situation.

I don’t really think people, specifically lunch ladies, want to see kids go hungry. But I think, like most things, there is a lot at play here. First, we can’t discount racism. That would be dumb, because racism plays a big role in a situation like this. One racist lunch lady can ruin a whole school. One racist lunch lady can decide who eats and who doesn’t. Who gets shame thrown their way, and who doesn’t. In most of these stories I’m reading, and there’s a lot of them if you look, this is happening at schools where the population has higher numbers of “Non-white” kids. That’s what they like to say, “Non-white.”

Next there’s the thinking that it isn’t hard to get free lunch. Maybe the kid standing in front of the lunch lady lives in a household situation that would be approved for free or reduced lunch, but maybe his parents have filled out the proper forms. And sure, the lunch lady can shame the kid, in a roundabout way of shaming the lazy parents, either because they didn’t fill out the forms, or because they forgot to write the check, or because this week, there was no way for them to part with that $15. Pick your poison, either way it’s all coming down to shaming a kid who just wants to eat lunch. And that’s not okay.

Probably, what’s most likely happening, is that the school district is sending out nasty emails about cutting costs in the cafeteria. Cutting waste. Collecting payments. And the lunch ladies are taking it as a slap in the face, and passing that slap onto the kids. Top down.

I wish I had a solution here. I mean, in a perfect world we would feed the kids, then worry about the bottom line later. Wait, hmm, maybe that is the solution? Oh yep. It is. Always feed the kid. Don’t shame them. It only takes one time to say to a kid, “Hey tomorrow, unless your balance is paid, will you grab a peanut butter and jelly instead of a hot lunch? I’m sorry, it’s just the rule.” Listen, that kid will grab a PBJ the next day, because that kid doesn’t want to be shamed. Not now, not ever. Not by the lunch lady. Not by his or her parents. But the least we could do when his parents do shame him, is show a little compassion.

Be kind.

M.

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