Just one more screed before bedtime
When I was a wee single mom some 6-ish years ago, with three daughters in three different schools in two different towns (part of the fun of a divorce), I applied to get my daughters in the free breakfast and lunch program. I filled out the USDA paperwork and then descended into the 9th Circle of Hell at one Alameda school as we tried to make good on the program.
My daughter (12) went to the lunch line, they told her to “go fill out the papers” and sent her away hungry. I called the school and complained. The next day — repeat. The third day they sent her away hungry again and I blew a gasket. I called everyone at the school district office and gave them a very long and articulate piece of my very pissed off mind — about how this is a hungry 12 y.o. child who is at the mercy of the system, and the people who are there to help her and to make sure she receives the benefit to which she is federally entitled have failed her; and that as custodians of our children, you are obligated to take care of these kids, and don’t your employees know how the program works, and if they don’t, couldn’t you send around a flyer or hold a training so kids don’t go hungry? and if I were not there to advocate for her, she would still be sent away hungry every day, even though…etc. No one called me back, needless to say.
I marched into the school with my daughter the fourth day (it took that long to get the facts straight). By then the school office was in a twist because they had all gotten in trouble from the main office. There actually was a system in place for getting lunch tickets and getting them punched, etc, but it was never explained to my daughter. No handout, no orientation, no instructions from anyone in the entire school. They just kept telling her, You have to fill out the papers even when she said (in tears) that we had done so. (What 12-year-old can “fill out papers” about gross annual household income?!)
They continued to send her away hungry until I raised the roof. In a grumpy way. Luckily for my daughters, and quite unluckily for the school, I am a highly educated, middle-class-sounding woman with a vocabulary that blew their socks off. That’s what made me maddest — that they scampered and scurried when I made a fuss and used big words and name-dropped the newspaper as a sort of afterthought, but if I hadn’t made a fuss — my child could have continued hungry and rejected from a service she was entitled to.
What if I were a non-English speaker with no literacy or fluency? “Looked poor”? Fewer words in my arsenal? Lived in my car? I would have had the same rights for my child but no way to access them because the system is the problem — the very delivery system of the help is where the problem is.
Further, the issues with school lunch programs or food stamps (both federal programs under the USDA, not social welfare programs) are not that participants are “taking advantage of the system,” pulling one over on hard-working Americans, or sucking the life out of America. The issues are that poverty begets poverty, hunger itself sucks the life out of you, and that most people live in fear that it could happen to them. We are but a wet piece of Kleenex from living in our cars, losing our homes or getting in the unemployment line. Fear builds walls, and says, “Keep away from me, poverty is contagious, and I don’t want to get any nearer the edge.” And we all need someone to blame, don’t we?
I could go on, bleeding heart-commie-flower child-of the-ecosystem that I am. You know I could. But I will end the JFSC by accounting that of our $454.50, I spent all but $8.50 to feed my family for the month of June, with some food left over. When I do a little bit of financial juggling of our own precarious budget, I will follow that with a donation to our local food bank and a great thank you to the Universe for the lessons that came to rest at my feet this past month. Things that make me say “Ow!” and then, “Wow!” are good things to learn. Big breath of freedom. Big sigh of gratitude.
And the menu today? Lots of good stuff, including but not limited to ciabatta bread and butter, hot coffee with CREAM, chocolate, grapes, local apple juice, whole milk, an egg McMuffin, and more.
Thanks for reading — and please let me know if you also make a donation of money, food or time to your food bank. It makes a big difference.
Julia Park Tracey is an award-winning journalist, author, and blogger. She is the author of six books: three novels, one poetry collection, and two women's history. She was the Poet Laureate of Alameda, California, in 2014-17. She's also the conservatrix of The Doris Diaries, the diaries of her great-aunt Doris Bailey Murphy. She has a BA in journalism from San Francisco State University, and MA in Early 20th C. British Literature from Cal State Hayward. Julia's articles have appeared on Salon, Thrillist, Paste, Scary Mommy, Narratively, Yahoo News, Your Tango, and Sweatpants & Coffee. Her articles have also run in Redbook, Woman's Day, Country Living, House Beautiful, Town & Country, the San Francisco Chronicle, Oakland Magazine, Quill, and MadeLocal. She was the founding editor of weekly Alameda Sun and literary zine Red Hills Review. Her poetry has been in The East Bay Literary review, Postcard Poems, Americus Review, Cicada, Tiferet Review, and many others. Julia has been recognized several times by the San Francisco, East Bay and Peninsula Press Clubs as well as the California Newspaper Association for her blogging since 2003.