Schools lunches are an equalizer in our unequal society

By Ken Kowald

About the time of St. Patrick’s Day, there was a spate of news about school lunches. It has become a pretty big topic since then.

That set my trivia-filled mind working. That gave rise to thoughts about the Irish Famine, the thinking of elected officials on many issues, my own food habits and a host of other things which seem to have flowed in a Faulkner-like continuity.

If that does not scare you off, read on.

I don’t remember school lunches. I am pretty sure I went home for lunch from my first school on Pitt Street on the Lower East Side. I am positive I did that at my public school on 14th Avenue in Borough Park, which has been a girl’s yeshiva for decades now. I don’t remember taking lunch from home and there were no food facilities in either place, as I remember.

When we moved to 57th Street in Elmhurst, it was October and in the few months I attended PS 102, on Van Horn Street, I walked about two blocks and ate lunch at home. If you look up the school today, you will find that it has quite a large population of several minorities and serves free or discount lunches to many needy students.

I must have taken lunch from home when I attended JHS 73 in Maspeth because I do not remember any food facilities in the building. The same for my years at Newtown High School. I think we ate at candy store counters, after buying a cheap soda. Of course, when you are in or about to enter the Seventh Age of Man, you may be forgiven (?) if you do not remember all the details of those times long ago.

Before we get to the matter of school lunches today, some thoughts about how people see the world.

Some years ago, I became a member of an organization in Forest Hills for which I retain membership. I was soon elected to one of the group’s boards. I was in the company of well-educated, fairly well-off women and men some years older than I.

At one meeting — and I don’t know how the matter came up — one lady declared, firmly, “Poverty is a thing of the past in the United States.” No one challenged her on that, if I recall correctly.

This was before the Great Society programs. We know, as Lincoln reminded us, that the poor are always with us, and he urged us to help “the least of these.” True today as then.

The point here is the perception of many people — too many, perhaps — about the world we live in. Will they recognize the level of poverty? Will they recognize the need to do something about it? Will they simply turn their backs on the American population, which is in need of help?

School lunches have become a big thing, but not without reason. They are needed. Most are free, I understand, although may be paid for.

But I have also read that many children are upset because they get a free lunch and others do not and they may feel some shame. Another instance of the old saw kids can be cruel.

In some places — perhaps New York City — maybe the answer is universal free lunch. Not junk food, either. If parents want to help pay for lunches with funds they can spare, that would be fine.

But no student should be embarrassed because he or she is eating properly at least once a day. No one should be concerned about being “found out” getting a freebie.

There are many on Capitol Hill who think otherwise. Food stamps are reduced. Help for those who need it seems far down on the agenda of too many of our elected officials, if it is on their agenda at all.

Is it necessary to have been impoverished to understand poverty? Is it necessary to have been in the military to understand the needs of veterans? Can we all make an effort to think beyond the boundaries of our own lives, please?

President Franklin D. Roosevelt was “to the manor born.” So was his distant cousin, Theodore. Teddy came up with the Square Deal; FDR gave us the New Deal.

President Lyndon B. Johnson was a poor kid in a South of Jim Crow who became a rich man. He worked himself sick getting a Civil Rights Act. Ditto for his Great Society.

Let’s have those free and nutritious lunches for all students. Let us never forget about “the least of these.” They are all around us.

And if you want some words to remember, read again the first page of “The Great Gatsby,” where the narrator, Nick Carrington, gets some advice from his father. All of us could use that kind of practical and compassionate advice. Indeed, it might be that those few words are really what America is all about.

That lady, so many years ago in Forest Hills, was not right about the end of poverty. Perhaps it may never end, but surely, in this country, we can give more than lip service to compassion for those in need and not make them feel ashamed.

It should be a consummation devoutly to be wished.

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