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School kids should only be hungry for knowledge
The story might be apocryphal, although my belief is it is true. It certainly rings of truth. It reminds me of my friend Danny in elementary school.
Danny did not have a dad. Not because of divorce; death. He never told me how his dad died and I didn’t ask.
Back in the late 1960s, kids brought sugary treats – cupcakes or Rice Krispies squares, usually – to school on their birthday. Danny never did. Not because he had a summer birthday, but because his mom couldn’t afford to feed 20 kids.
She had a hard time feeding Danny. I didn’t know this for a long while.
Most of my friends and I ate packed lunches, but Danny always got the hot lunch. This meant he had to wait in the cafeteria line. With our head start, kids with packed lunches got out to the playground sooner.
One day I complained to Danny that we were getting tired of having to wait for him before choosing up sides for games. I suggested, ignorantly, he should start packing his lunch.
He confided he had to eat the hot lunch because he got it free.
It’s funny the things you remember. During sleepovers at Danny’s house I remember he always wore socks to bed. More specifically, what I can’t forget is that his tube socks always had holes in them – sometimes with two or three toes sticking out.
Danny’s family was poor.
Now you will understand why a short essay on Facebook by a woman named Veronica, a post that has been shared more than 50,000 times, hit me like a punch in the empty stomach. It reads:
“I was a free lunch kid. I will not offer my backstory because it should not matter whether or not we were ‘worthy’ or ‘irresponsible’ trash. I was a hungry child.
“Without free lunch and sometimes free breakfasts, I would not have eaten until dinner. There was no money to get a hot lunch and I suspect no money to buy supplies to pack lunch. I was a hungry child.
“I do not know whether free lunch made me work harder. I do not know whether free lunch improved my grades. I do not know whether free lunch improved my classroom behavior. What I know is that I was a hungry child and I was fed.
“I received my lunch without embarrassment or isolation. Every day, I went through the line with the standard hot lunch. I waved at the nonjudgmental lunch lady. I was a hungry kid and I ate my lunch.
“I was a hungry child and our government, through your taxes, fed me.
Veronia’s story made me think of another person who went hungry as a child: Olympic champion Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
“We’d stop to eat after a track meet and everyone else would buy something but I wouldn’t,” Jackie once told me, recalling her long-ago days on the East St. Louis Railer youth track team.
“I’d have to wait until I got home because I didn’t have any money. My mom always taught us, ‘If you don’t have, don’t ask.’ I’d run six events and still say I wasn’t hungry.”
Her youth coach finally figured it out. Since Jackie didn’t have – and wouldn’t ask – he started insisting she share some of his food.
Fast forward four decades. Jackie, who competed in four Olympics and won six medals (three gold), never forgot that early life lesson and kindness. When youths at The Jackie Joyner-Kersee Boys & Girls Club in East St. Louis kept showing up hungry, Jackie didn’t wait for them to ask for food. What if they didn’t ask? She started a free meal program.
If you ask me, feeding hungry kids is a greater legacy than Olympic gold.
Back to my friend Danny. I didn’t start buying the hot lunch – except on pizza days – but I did start waiting to eat my packed lunch until Danny got through the cafeteria line.
Other friends soon followed suit. Then we would go out to the playground together.
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Woody Woodburn writes a weekly column for The Ventura County Star and can be contacted at WoodyWriter@gmail.com.
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