Friday, January 20, 2012
This is a copy of a speech I was asked to present to a regional conference of some very important contributors to public schools who too often go unrecognized – food service workers.
"My presentation this evening has been years in the making. It’s a reflection of my own school experiences related to the food service program. These recollections were not difficult to recall because of their impact.
My family was poor. My dad was a troubled war veteran of the Marine Corps wrestling with a variety of inner demons. My mom was worn down and depressed by caring for the many needs of seven kids, all born before she was thirty. Both of my parents quit school in ninth grade and started their litter of kids without anything but slim hopes.
Food was as important to me as it was for anyone. I remember how all of the kids at school used to collect canned goods for the poor for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I remember how ashamed I felt when our principal, Mr. Murray, would come by our tenement apartment later that day and present us with boxes of the canned goods. I remember how ridiculous I felt that first time, because I had even brought in a can of beans or something for the poor, only to find out we were the poor!
Maybe that’s why the subject of food service personnel is so important to me. You see, I received free lunch throughout my school years. It always seemed that the nice ladies who served the food would put an extra scoop of food on my tray. I could tell from their soft and caring smiles, and their sympathetic eyes, that they were mothers and really extended themselves for kids like me. I presumed that they knew about me and my family – either that or they just thought that the extra food might make me grow, since I was always the smallest kid in my grade.
Some of the very best meals I ever had as a child were prepared and served at school, especially those turkey and mashed potato lunches around the holidays. I always ate everything up and couldn’t understand how anyone could throw any of that great food away. Maybe it was because my family regularly dined on the government commodity food we got from the welfare agency. My mom was not creative enough to do much with the white butter, canned stringy turkey, lima beans, rice, powdered milk and powdered eggs, clear Karo syrup and all of the normal things that came in the boxes each month.
I remember that as I grew older and became more conscious of the stigma of being on free lunch, how careful and considerate the cashiers were. They relieved me of some fear and discomfort by hiding my embarrassment and handling my free ticket in a way that the other kids, who could pay in cash, would not see my ticket and ridicule me for being poor. They also seemed to notice whenever I had a haircut or had something to smile about. Their little comments meant a lot to me. These women really took their jobs seriously.
You may have heard of the parable about the three stone cutters, each performing the exact same task. When asked, the first one said he was cutting stone, the second one said he was making a wall, but the third one exclaimed proudly that he was building a cathedral!
My dad was a custodian at the hospital. I can recall one night when he described his job as a “responsibility to provide clean and sterile rooms so the doctors and nurses could operate and do their highly skilled work.” He saw his job as much more than just mopping floors. He made it a calling – just like those women who worked behind the counter at my elementary school and did so much more than simply preparing and serving food. That’s why I suspect these were the same women who brought in the hand-me-down clothes that were given to me by the school nurse and counselor. They always served me a smile with my meals and I wonder if they ever understood how much that meant to me.
Now, as an adult, I aware of the powerful connection food has with people beyond nutrition. Our society emphasizes the social interaction associated with meals, whether it’s just the family sitting around the table at dinner time or a special event or holiday. Food is a reinforcer and it meets more needs than just nourishment of the body.
In addition to these kind and caring ladies, many people helped me along the way as I pursued my dreams – teachers, counselors, and a number of other staff members. I went all the way from the free lunch line in elementary school to the graduation line for those awaiting receipt of their doctorates.
Remember the cliché that the best way to someone’s heart is through their stomachs. Keep that in mind when you serve kids – you’re helping feed dreams!
Thank you and good night."