Saturday, January 03, 2009

Cheese Sandwiches and the Hieronymus Bosch World of Public School Cafeterias

An anti-hunger community group says a new public school policy to offer cold cheese sandwiches to students with lunchroom debt will stigmatize children.-- Albuquerque Journal, 1.3.09
List of places adult human beings would willingly go (in order of eager willingness):

1. South of France free wine/bread/cheese early Summer gastronomy tour, driven spot to spot in a '59 Corvette with the top down.

2. Endless, but never monotonous or painful, cycle of massages and restorative hot tub sessions in the Star Trek Holodeck scenario of the adult human being's choice.
99,999,999,999,999,999: Public middle school cafeteria during "A" Lunch.

Remember, dear fellow adult human being, the school cafeteria? Remember, in particular, the social strata and caste system of the junior high/middle school cafeteria? My daily work existence forces me, far too often, to actually go into our school cafeteria. It is the one place on campus that causes involuntary shuddering throughout my person.

I bring up these thoughts, and readers' possible nightmare memories in reaction to the idea that changes in APS meal charging policy "will stigmatize children". I know most adults have invested significant mental time and possibly extensive sessions of professional psychological therapy trying to erase any memories regarding their own K-12 school lunch experiences. Still, I don't think I'm going to surprise anyone with the following observation:

--Public school cafeterias are the sight of rampant, pervasive and endlessly fascinating/alarming (for us sociology types) stigmatization, discrimination and every -ism you can possibly think of, including racism, beauty-ism and capitalism. In short, the public school cafeteria is like Lord of the Flies meets Thomas Hobbes meets the Black Hole of Calcutta. Only worse.

So for someone to object to the "stigmatization" brought about by APS making the sons/daughters of deadbeat parents (who aren't eligible for "free/reduced lunch", yet don't give Joanie/Johnny a couple of bucks to pay for lunch each day), let me remind everyone that the kids (especially the middle school ones) are WAY, WAY, WAY ahead of the adults when it comes to finding potential discerning points ripe for stigmatization.

For just one example, let's look at the "free/reduced lunch" issue. At my school, there are two kinds of kids at lunch: those who stand in the line for the APS lunch and those who buy lunch in the "snack bar" line. There are also a few kids who bring their own lunch, and these anomalies are openly ridiculed for being different, eating sensibly, etc. Notably, it is these "bring their own lunch" kids who invariably look among the most healthy/fit in the school.

But back to the two larger groups. It is universally taken as fact that a student who stands in line for the APS lunch is getting a "free/reduced lunch". Otherwise, why would these folks eat the crappy APS lunch? This line is very slow-moving because all the kids have to punch in their "free/reduced lunch" numbers into a device near the cash register. The cash register in the APS line almost never has change, as almost all the students punch in the little numbers.

Meanwhile, all the "rich" kids overeat in the "snack bar" line, getting airport-priced slices of pizza and convenience-store priced "baked" Cheetos (baked because of new dietary guidelines...whereas the pizza is nowhere near such guidelines).

It is from this dichotomy that tons of other class/other distinctions follow, including all those race/looks/language issues that still plague our society. And, being public school, you've also got your bullies and assorted other losers who get to have the time of their life at age 13 intimidating kids, everyone knowing the likelihood that life for these bullies/losers is most certainly headed downhill from here.

Doesn't it all just make you wanna show up for "A" lunch this Monday? And Tuesday....?

I have no real opinion on the subject of what to do with students unable/unwilling to pay for an APS lunch. Oh, that's not true...I have tons of opinions on APS lunch:

  • The "snack bar" line should be done away with;
  • All lunches should be "cooked" on campus from scratch
  • All lunches should be free, with day cards used to prevent "doubling up"
  • Students not eligible for "free/reduced lunch" could purchase meal cards each semester
  • "Free/reduced lunch" students would have the same exact meal cards funded through the program
Sure, these ideas wouldn't solve all problems of the William Golding/Thomas Hobbes world of public school cafeterias. But they might help a bit.

Meanwhile, I have to go pack my 90 lunches for the upcoming Semester. Thinking/writing on this subject has left me unwilling to ever, EVER go inside my school cafeteria again. I'll keep looking at the Bosch painting below as a reminder of what it looks like inside these horrible places.


Nora said...

I distinctly remember lunches in that very cafeteria as one of the most definitively horrible experiences of my relatively short life. I have never been to prison, joined the military, or had anything all that horrible happen to me, but damn did that suck. But then, I did have B lunch, which at the time was the more giant one.

That cafeteria was, interestingly, also how I found out that my eyes change color based on the environment they are around. My eyes are hazel, but they almost always appear green. The Jefferson Middle School cafeteria is so damn brown that it is one of very few places where I actually have completely brown eyes.

At Albuquerque High, the cafeteria was so small that only people who bought APS lunch actually ate there, which in retrospect is probably a large part of why AHS had a much less clearly defined social pyramid than JMS did. That also could have been that our sports teams were so stunningly horrible that no one felt they could respect the jocks, though.

ched macquigg said...

$140K is a relatively small amount compared to APS' discretionary budget.

A smaller number still, is the amount of money between $140K and what it would cost to just let them eat with their friends.

School board election in about a month.

Kelsey Atherton said...

After 6th grade, I always brought lunch. In a giant, tin cylinder, no less. I was damn classy.

Yeah, I think the idea of stigmatizing kids in APS, esp. midschoolers, with the goal of making them change is ridiculous. Those sandwiches will be projectiles more times than they are consumed as food - kids know when they are being treated shittily, and they will respond age-appropriately.

Also - isn't this like the absolute bare minimum responsibility of *gasp* *shock* *agony* welfare state/mildly socialist public education? Get kids in school, and make sure they can learn. Ditch the snack bar - if you want to reward capitalism, let school clubs sell decent food during lunch, and lets kids spend cash on that. And make sure everyone gets the food they need to get through the day. It's not a terribly hard proposition.

If we want to have a generation of kids grow up with an inkling of government competence, we should at least give them food.

McElder51 said...

Are you and I the only people in Albuquerque with copies of Hieronymous Bosch's work of art?