Food Fight

Kathryn Lynch

Copyright 2019 by Kathryn Lynch

Photo of a school milk carton.

We imagine a food fight with teenagers slinging food across the room at each other, soiling each others' clothes, decorating the walls and the lights, yelling, screaming, and laughing. This is the true story of a food fight which took place between two adults in a closed office, Not a bite of food changed hands.

Today it is widely accepted that students who are hungry or undernourished do not learn as well or as quickly as those who are nutritionally advantaged. It took a long time for anyone to figure this out, but finally, in 1972, the first government sponsored free lunches were introduced into the San Francisco Public Schools.

The Program recognized the voters' concern about cost and potential abuse. It came with lots of rules and no help whatsoever in monitoring these regulations. Eligibility of children into the Program fell to school secretaries, and supervision of these large lunch groups during the lunch hour to classroom teachers. There were not yet any Teacher's Aids, Playground Monitors, or Lunchroom Monitors. Absolutely no food was to leave the lunch room. Penalties for allowing food to leave school grounds were severe. We all knew this but our time was not spent pondering rules. Rather we were busy each day trying to get the job done.

So it was, that about the third week of school, I spent my first week on lunch duty. The lunches looked good and smelled good. In the first five minutes I could see that first graders were getting the exact amount of food as sixth grade boys and girls. The lunch cook assured me that this was the rule. When lunch was over, each student threw everything remaining on the tray into the garbage can and stacked the tray. I was appalled that large numbers of unopened milk cartons, untouched apples, oranges, and pears were being thrown out. We were feeding hungry children and at the same time we were teaching them to waste.

By the next day, when I stood at the exit door, empty milk crates were lined up next to the garbage can. Unopened cartons of milk went in one crate, untouched fruit in another. Sandwiches still wrapped and untouched went into a third. During lunch any child who wanted more could help themselves from the crates.. At the end of lunch, the remaining items were brought to my classroom. During the afternoon my fourth graders could take a food item to a desk provided that it was consumed. Many took a snack out to recess where it was often shared with kids from other classes. There remained the problem that at the end of the school day, some food remained in the crates. It was decided that these items were home food. They could be placed in the children's school bags but the bags had to remain closed until a child was at home. A child opening a bag before getting home lost the right to take home food again. For several months the plan worked well. Big kids got extra lunch. My fourth graders had nutritious snacks. A few poor families had a little extra food.

Of course everyone knew what happened to the lunch food. And finally the system came apart. I was called into the principal's office, where I admitted my misdeeds and told in no uncertain terms not to take any more food from the lunchroom. Taking the food was an offense for which I could be fired. That day I appointed some children to be food monitors. They collected the crates of food and brought them to my classroom. I never touched the food in the cafeteria again whether or not on lunchroom duty. In a week or so, everything went back as before.

On grilled cheese sandwich day, the sandwich crate was always full. The Chinese children, who had no cheese in their diets found them inedible. Other children loved them. Today, two crates full of sandwiches arrived at my desk. Delicious. At the end of the school day one crate full still remained with no shortage of volunteers for “home food”. The school buses were filled with praises for their grilled cheese badges and some of the sandwiches were openly passed around and eaten.
This time the Principal closed the door after asking the Secretary not to be interrupted. He outlined my offenses at length:

“ I had food taken from the lunchroom”,

“ I had allowed consumption of some of that food in my classroom”, I had permitted children to take food outside to recess”,

I asked if he knew any times the food was misused for profit. He sputtered that I was missing the point. There were rules. I was disobeying those rules and he was close to deciding whether to fire me over it.

His face had been flushed with anger when he began. He was still ranting but his face now had its normal hue. On and on he went, appearing to never end, but at last he was spent.

(I was terrified. For two years I had been attempting to remain living a middle class lifestyle and pay the tuition of a night law school program. Firing me would terminate my time in law school and dump me into the streets. I sensed immediately that fear wasn't the solution).

OK, if you fire me I will go to the press.!”

I can't imagine a single taxpayer in this city who would want children to throw away good food.”

I can't imagine a single taxpayer in this city who would want to prevent undernourished families from receiving leftover food which would otherwise be thrown away.”,

You can throw me out of this school with the food, but I will come back with a reporter who will look in the lunchroom garbage cans to see what is happening.”

That day after school 12 cartons of milk, 2 oranges, and a sandwich went home for dinner. No wrapped or untouched food was thrown away that day or any school day after that.

In my fourth grade were a set of fraternal twins, a boy and girl, outrageously thin. Every day each twin loaded at least six cartons of milk into a school bag. Also taking the trip were oranges and apples. One day, Marguerita Castellanos asked me if I knew what happened to the food that she and Jose took home. She explained that twice

Mom made apple pies that all of us got to eat. (six children)”,

Mom peels the oranges and smashes them down. We have orange juice at breakfast.”

Do you know what Mom does with the milk?”, she asked. “She opens all the cartons and puts the milk in a pan on the stove. Then the milk gets warm and she feeds it to my baby in a bottle.”


Epilogue: In the 1980s, the San Francisco Unified School District introduced a government sponsored Breakfast Program. To manage that program, funds were made available to hire Lunchroom Monitors to manage breakfast and lunch meal supervision. Classroom teachers no longer had any responsibility for these meals.

Others recognized the need of poor families to be provided more food in addition to Food Stamps. Large charitable groups and churches put together Food Banks where food was made available to families living below the poverty level.

The Castellanos baby would now be 47 years old. I like to think that I made a small contribution to this person's general health.

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