Feed the Children

I work part-time in an elementary school in Des Moines, Iowa, coordinating a reading program for mentors and children over their lunch period. Which means the children bring their lunches into the library and eat while being read to. This school is extremely diverse with immigrant and refugee families from all over the world. Many from the countries our president recently referred to as substandard.

This week I found a third-grade student of mine crying in the lunchroom, holding her tray. On it were canned pears and a bun with a slice of turkey and a piece of cheese inside.

“What’s wrong?” I asked her, concerned.

Sobbing, she answered that she had told the lunch worker she wanted Chili instead. That they told her she couldn’t trade even though they had misheard her. She said she couldn’t eat meat or cheese. I am not sure if that meant a food allergy, she just didn’t like it, or that it was based in culture or religion.

I brought her to an aide and explained the situation.

“We can’t trade,” she said.

“Even when it was their mistake?” I stared at her. A younger woman, just following the rules.

“Can you just eat the bread?” she asked the third-grader.

I was shocked and said, “So, we’re starving children in America now?”

I watch good food, perfectly fine fruit, tossed in the trash after lunch. One day I asked the student I read with if she was going to eat her banana. She said, no. I asked her if she could bring it home for her mother, who liked bananas and was pregnant. She said, no, they wouldn’t let her. Which made me wonder how much of this wasted food could be taken home to a family member if we simply had the correct containers? After all, the food is paid for. And these children come from families who are mostly either at or below the poverty level. Keep in mind that 16 million children go hungry through their day in our country.

All that good, nutritional food, thrown away.

Obviously, at the end of the day, the rest of the chili would be tossed too. So why couldn’t a little girl have a bowl? What was this, Oliver? She wasn’t even asking for more. Just some. We are the richest nation, not Dicken’s ninteeth century London. I figured if I went to the principal, I would get “if we let one child….” But this was about nutrition and health. The girl cried while her mentor read, not touching her sandwich. I wondered if lunch was the biggest meal of her day? If dinner was light – like in so many homes across our country. Families who rely on their public school to feed their children. At the end, my own student didn’t finish her chili and gave the rest to her friend.

This was a small incident in one school in one city in one state. But it was something easily remedied if the school broke one rule because it was the humane thing to do and not because of numbers and loss. Who would know if a child who had to throw her food away because she didn’t ask for it and couldn’t eat it was given a cup full of chili on the sly? If one person had the compassion to just do it because there was a hungry child in front of them sobbing openly in front of her classmates? Because that is what we are supposed to do in this democracy: feed the children, be the village, care.

I wonder what Betsy DeVos would have to say about this?

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