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Full Bellies in Boston
I am deeply proud of my city, Boston, for an unusual reason. It has nothing to do with one of our famous sports teams. Instead it’s about school lunch: If you attend a Boston public school, regardless of your income, you will receive a free breakfast, snack, lunch, and then final snack if you are in an afternoon program. That is enough calories for a single day, even if you do not have dinner.
Many cities provide free meal programs for school children, but there is often a complicated documentation system that places the burden of proof on families. More often than not, school social workers need to track down documents that are never received. Children inevitably slip through the cracks. More complex than documentation: food insecurity cannot be easily calculated on paper. Some children do not qualify who are food insecure.
Boston decided in 2013 that full bellies were as important as curriculum. Boston ditched the red tape. All children can eat their fill in the Boston public school system. Then Mayor Thomas Menino said it simply: “Every child has a right to healthy, nutritious meals in school.” He then noted the complications of the application system: “This takes the burden of proof off our low-income families and allows all children, regardless of income, to know healthy meals are waiting for them at school every day.” (BostonPublicSchools.org, BPS Offers Universal Free Meals for Every Child).
The church where I serve has partnered with a local school in Boston. The school social worker noticed that children were stuffing their pockets with food on Friday afternoon. And on Monday morning, they couldn’t get enough food into their empty bellies fast enough. Through our food pantry, Rose’s Bounty, we send children home with bags of kid friendly food each Friday to see them through the weekend.
Ever since Covid left our city locked down and our school system closed, I have worried and worried about this particular group of children. I have prayed for them, wondering if their bellies ache at night. The city of Boston has done an excellent job, as have many cities, providing food assistance through local community organizations and at central localities. Our church has offered a weekly pop up food pantry in the school recess yard to try and reach families in need. And still we know that there are children who are malnourished because they do not have the consistency of school breakfast and lunch each day.
Visible Disparity & Free Lunches
When my mom was a child growing up in Buffalo, New York, she walked home everyday for lunch. School lunches were not provided in her neighborhood school, or in most schools in the early 1940s. And without official school lunches, kids could see how hungry each other were.
In Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, we see how this wealth disparity plays out during the school lunch. The main character, Scout, comes face to face with poverty for the first time when her older brother, Jem, invites a classmate named Walter home for lunch. At the Finch home, Walter greedily pours molasses all over his meat and vegetables to Scout’s horror. Scout, of course, does not remain quiet. Calpurnia, the Finch’s house keeper and mother of sorts, calls Scout into the kitchen and scolds her for her rude behavior. She explains to Scout that not everyone has as much to eat as Scout.
Scout's behavior is not uncommon. I remember vividly bragging about the pot of change my dad left in our kitchen for our school lunches and how my brother and I took however much we wanted (my parents didn’t know this, but they also didn’t monitor). With the extra money we bought ice cream bars and chocolate milk. A classmate was awestruck at this unrestricted access and told me her mother carefully counted out her lunch money each day. My family wanted for nothing; I learned this for the first time at school lunch.
Two things happened in America that created the school lunch programs that were the norm when I entered school in 1980. First, women began organizing. It started small, a mother noticing a child with no lunch. These mothers brought children into their homes at the noon hour and made sure they received a filling lunch. This was more common than you can imagine. Soon women were showing up at schools with pots of soup and slices of bread to make sure all the children were fed lunch. Boston led this movement and was the first school district in the country to offer lunches to all students in the late 1890s. The Boston free lunch program was led by the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union. In 1908 in Manhattan, students paid 3 cents or less for pea soup and two slices of bread offered by the Women’s Missionary Society.
Second, school lunches became federally supported immediately after World War II. Many young men drafted into World War II couldn’t fight due to malnourishment. Present Truman’s legislative response was simple: the 1946 National School Lunch Act provided affordable meals so kids could grow up to be strong soldiers and strong citizens.
The Importance of School Lunches in the Era of Pandemics
There are things we simply take for granted. They have been such a part of the common fabric of our communities that we stop noticing. During this pandemic, I have become aware of just how impactful the 1946 National School Lunch Act was on our country. In fact, I have come to realize school lunches are central to our democracy. Let me explain. My rationale is simple. I will confess that although my experience is limited, my work at the Chittick School has given me a bird’s eye view into the terrible domino effects of food insecurity on education.
Children can’t learn on empty stomachs. It’s hard for me to imagine anyone disagreeing with this statement. And an educated populace is essential to democracy. As democracy took root in America, public education became not just an ideal, but an imperative. An enlightened public, the founders believed, was essential to self-government. Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Education is the anvil against upon democracy is forged.” If education is essential to self-government, and school lunches are key to children’s ability to learn, then school lunches are central to our democracy.
I am not a public health official, and I am not challenging in any way the closure of schools. I do want, however, to offer the following observation: sitting down every day in a cafeteria with classmates, at the same table, in the same room, eating from the same lunch trays, is one of the greatest achievements of our democracy. At that cafeteria moment, we are saying to each child in America, “You matter. Your very physical well being matters. Your education matters. Your voice matters. Your experience matters. Your future matters. You are a citizen of this country and one day we will depend on you to uphold our democracy.”
So why does any of this matter to a Christian Disciple?
As followers of Jesus, seeking, fighting for, and securing justice is our job description. Sister Simone Campbell said it most clearly when she asserted that salvation is communal. Therefore, justice is how we measure salvation. The measure of justice is how well we do together, as a nation. My salvation is completely tied up with a child sitting down to eat lunch. If that child is hungry, so am I. If I do not fight for justice for that child, I am not closer to salvation. Our destinies are entwined.
Jesus called all of his disciples, those who were constantly clueless, those who would deny him, those who would betray him, to eat of bread and drink of cup with him. In that upper room, Jesus made it clear there was only one table and at that table there was room for us all and there was enough for us all. Just as Simone Campbell asserts, Jesus saw salvation as a fully communal endeavor. I like to think of the Boston Public School system’s lunch rooms like Jesus’ table. Everyone is welcome. There is enough for every child. The salvation of each child at each rickety cafeteria table is forever bound up with those who sit across from them, and with me, and with you. Those women who sought free lunches for all children worked not only for our justice, but for my salvation.Thank you.
Rev. Abigail A Henrich (ehm!) is an ordained minister who earned her stripes at Princeton Theological Seminary and Colgate University. That said, Abby is really a mother-pastor-spouse who lives in a kinetic state of chaos as she moves from her many vocations: folding laundry, preaching, returning phone calls, sorting lunch boxes, answering e-mails, and occasionally thinking deep thoughts in the shower. Unabashedly she is a progressive Christian who believes some shaking up has got to happen in the church.