11.12.2008

Eating to Live or Living to Eat?



Growing up in the gentrified South, it was easy to be an above-average student in a below-average school system. Learning to eat smart on the chicken fried side of the Mason-Dixon Line was much more difficult.

I spent my K-5 years at Jesse P. Miller Elementary in Bradenton, Florida. The lunch ladies at that proud institute helped me earn an "A" in the fourth "R"—Rotundity—by slinging the best chow in Manatee County. Salisbury steak, chicken cordon bleu, pork chops and apple sauce, spaghetti with meatballs, baked macaroni and cheese, sloppy joes and tater tots… an average week's bill of fare at Jesse P. read like the tapas menu at the Fat Albert Culinary Institute. Mmmm, mmmm, good.

When there was a nickel on my night stand, that was mom's signal to treat myself to an extra milk. Total damage to family coffers for this weekly smorgasbord: two dollars and ten cents, two-thirty-five if I splurged for a double dose of moo juice every day. When mom was really loaded, she'd send me to school with an Andy Jackson and I'd buy a month of lunch cards with plenty of red dots for extra milk.

At the end of the lunch line there was a lady in a hair net with a star-shaped hole punch in one hand and a cash drawer beneath the other. If you had a lunch card, she punched a hole for every square meal and round 8-ounce milk jug on your tray. For reasons I didn't question at the time, kids with cash were allowed only one extra milk per day. Lunch card kids like myself could take as many extra milks as the spots on our cards would cover. Of course, I exploited this loophole every Monday by stacking five chocolate milks on my tray and selling them for a dime on the brown market. After school I spent my ill-gotten gains on Mounds bars and Dr. Pepper. I was the smartest, richest and best-fed first-grader on the tether ball court.

Two decades after I graduated from Jesse P. Miller, mom's baby sister joined my alma mater's teaching staff. On a recent visit to Florida, Aunt Nancy and I swapped memories about the now dilapidated school and its revered cafeteria. As it turned out, the kitchen staff I knew and loved transferred to a new school the year after my fifth-grade graduation. When it became Aunt Nancy's turn to sup with her students, the food that fueled my imagination and filled my stomach was long gone. In its place: burgers, fries, and rice crispy squares.

Despite the change in cuisine, Jesse P. Miller's lunch card program remained the same. As Aunt Nancy explained it, kids with cash were still limited to one extra milk per day, and kids with lunch cards could take as many as they wanted. When I asked why, she answered quite simply, "Lunch card kids are poor. For most of them, the food they got at Jesse P. was the best meal of their day."

I had no idea.

When your mom makes 125 bucks per week, I guess an extra nickel is a big deal.

Hey mom—thanks for keeping me well fed.

The moral of the story:

When you're young, Free Market Capitalism is great.

When you're old, a little Socialism isn't the devil some people would like us to believe.

If I knew then what I know now, I like to think I'd have given those extra milks away.

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1 comment:

jenks said...

Excellent piece McGruther... took me back as well.