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To Get School Lunches, I Washed the Other Kids’ Trays

My mother didn’t allow television or sugar in our home, so other kids’ houses were magical places with Saturday morning cartoons and Skippy peanut butter. I still remember the kitchen where I had my first bowl of Frosted Flakes one morning after a sleepover. And the counter where I first had Skippy peanut butter, served on Ritz crackers at my best friend’s house after school.

After tasting Skippy, I spent lunch hours frowning at my scratchy whole wheat bread dabbed with snot-like “natural” peanut butter and pining for the other kids’ sandwiches made with smooth peanut butter slathered on soft white bread. Until suddenly in the fourth grade, my mother announced my sister and I would be getting hot lunches in the cafeteria.

That was cool.

I was so excited I couldn’t sleep the night before, then spent all morning steeling myself for when I reached the front of the line and the woman taking money shook her head. “Sorry, hon. Your mom called. She changed her mind.”

But the woman taking my money (before I got my free punchcard) didn’t even look at me, so I stepped up to the counter, feeling like Charlie walking into the Chocolate Factory as I watched beautiful mounds of forbidden foods piled onto my tray. When I got the food safely to a table, I nearly had to sit on my hands to keep from rubbing them together as I surveyed my bounty.

In the main section of the tray was a hamburger with a white, fluffy bun that I had only eaten in restaurants, plus some even more exciting French fries to the right. Above the fries were some boring carrot and celery sticks, but in the top left, almost hidden by the bun, was the most exciting thing of all: dessert!

That first one was actually my least favorite, a fruit pie. Thinking it was just a weird-shaped donut, I bit into it eagerly and … Yuck! The outside was good, but the inside dribbled down my face and tasted like warm cocktail syrup. Whenever I saw a pie again, I just carefully nibbled the crust off the edges, making at least one boy run up and ask, eyes shining, “Are you going to eat that?” before he saw the bite marks.

My favorite dessert was definitely the peanut butter bar, a dreamy square of everything that made Skippy great. After I tasted that, I always checked the dessert section first and usually ate it right away, since having an older sister who felt entitled to grab things off my plate taught me to take what I wanted the most first.

My favorite main dish was this crazy mix of tostada and pizza shaped like a Stop sign called a “Fiestada Pizza.” It made no sense, but I found the soft dough topped with sauce, melted cheese and bits of hamburger meat delicious and fun to eat. When I put the monthly lunch calendar on the fridge, I circled each day with Fiestada Pizza to make sure I never missed them. Though of course I never would, because I never missed school.

The magic of those lunches never wore off for me, even when I learned I was eating them because of something called Aid for Families with Dependent Children, the new term for food stamps, and that to keep getting them I would have to work in the cafeteria. Most days, I just presented my monthly punchcard and picked up my tray with no one but the woman who gave me a new card every month knowing I got my lunches for free. But once a month, I had to go behind the counter and spoon up food or wash dishes like the other AFDC kids.

I always asked to wash dishes, because then you worked in a small room near the exit door where hardly any of the other kids noticed you as they hurried out to the playground, instead of facing them as you doled out their food. And I also liked working alone, free to just focus on cleaning the trays, which I actually enjoyed.

My favorite part was rinsing off all the food bits by pulling down the hose hanging from the ceiling and blasting the trays with a jet of hot water, smiling as even the stickiest mess just slid off. Then I’d stack all the trays on their side in a rack, slide the rack into the big, square metal dishwasher and push the big red button to scald them clean.

The tray-washing room was probably a lot like being trapped inside a huge washing machine, but I didn’t mind. All of the noises and actions were a predictable, soothing break from the constant chaos created by crowds of kids, and I found the work satisfying and absorbing.

My job at the cafeteria was the first of many I would have in food service but remained my favorite, because there I never had to interact with customers or co-workers. It was just me and the trays, which I loved pulling warm and clean from the machine to stack into a large pile that always made me smile.

But of course I never told my mother how much I enjoyed washing dishes at school, or that would have become my job at home, too!

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