For some reason this post at Women of Color Blog and this post at the way here reminded me of my childhood, and the social class dynamics of growing up poor. In her post on Women of Color blog BFP mentions working at McDonalds, which reminded me of my own food service experiences. I worked in fast food, but my first actual food service experience was in elementary school. This is where Monica’s post fits in. Somehow in a very long comment thread the subject turned to government cheese (or in Rosyln’s words “gubmint cheese”), which they served in the cafeteria at my elementary school.1
How do I know what was served in the cafeteria at my school? Well, like all of the other kids in the 5th and 6th grade, I worked in the cafeteria. I can imagine the middle class mostly white suburban readers gasping now because no “respectable” middle class school would ever make their students work in the cafeteria, but my school did.
Here’s how it worked. There were a total of two 5th grade and two 6th grade classes. Each week one of those classes had cafeteria duty, and most of the students in the class would go down to the cafeteria around 10:30 and start helping the janitors and cafeteria workers serve lunch to the students. There were different jobs, which were gendered and assigned base on skills. The most prestigious job was selling ice cream since it involved actually having to count money, and the teacher picked the smartest kids. It was also cooler out in that part of the cafeteria, and only people who had an extra 30 cents to spend on lunch could buy ice cream, so there wasn’t any deluge of kids running to the counter. The rest of the student workers were in three groups, which were assigned by the cooks and janitors. You had the lunch servers, who put food on trays. This was mostly girls with a few boys mixed in, and it was the moderate prestige position. Then, there were the lowest prestige positions: dish washers, (mostly girls), and tray dumpers, (mostly boys). The tray dumpers had to empty the trays after the students were done eating, and take out garbage. Oh and I almost forget, that there was a person who had to wash tables, which I believe was one of those mid-level prestige jobs. Lunch generally ended around noon, and we had recess around that time period.
The students were paid for their work in free meals, and of course this work was also considered valuable job training because it taught us about hard work and responsibility. Moreover, in a low income school, this was one more way to save money. I don’t know that they could afford to hire that many people to work at the school because the local tax base was very low. The school also saved money by getting government subsidized food, such as government cheese. (Which in my opinion was pretty good, but that’s for another debate.)
I suspect lunch was very different than it would be in a middle class school for other reasons as well.
The majority of the kids in my school were eligible for free lunches, and very few kids packed their lunches. How do I know this? Because we had to line up for lunch based on how we were paying–free lunch kids went first, then reduced lunch ($.45), and full price lunch was last ($.75). Most of the kids lined up for free lunch. I also remember when my mother finally got a full time job teaching special education at the school because I got to move to the back of the lunch line with Jason and Aaron, who were the “wealthier” kids in my class. My Dad said we were probably still eligible for the reduced price lunch, but my mother’s pride was not going to allow her to have her kids on reduced lunch while she was teaching in the school. I also knew many of our kids were eligible for free lunch because I looked at data when I was in high school and we were campaigning for a school levy. All of the people campaigning were given a sheet of paper that had data comparing our school to other schools in the state of Ohio based on test scores, per pupil spending, teacher pay, and other relevant socio-economic indicators. As I looked through the sheet all of the numbers were very low, mostly in the bottom 20% or bottom 5%. Finally, I got to the end of the chart, and I leaned over to my mother and said,
“Hey mom we’re really high in this one. What does AFDC mean?” My mom replied,
We both started laughing because it was the only figure where the school was actually in the top 5%. (I don’t think they had teen pregnancy or drop out rates because we would have been in the top on those, too.)
In junior and high school things were a little different. The kids still served lunches, but it was only the kids in special education who worked in the cafeteria, and they did so almost every day. Those of us who were not in special education were weeded out of food service, and we spent our time in the classroom.
I’ve been reflecting quite a bit on social class over the last 5 or 6 years, especially as it relates to education. I know my own children are not going to grow up like me, and I have mixed feelings about that. As much as I know that many middle income people would find it offensive to have their kids work in the school cafeteria for free food, I have more mixed feelings. Poor kids and working class kids seem to grow up quicker, and they are not coddled in the ways that middle and upper income kids are. I suppose many people are going to say having kids serve in the cafeteria is child labor. I guess it is, but I’m more ambivalent about it. I’ve been doing this type of labor since the 5th grade. I stuffed envelopes for my dad in high school, and I worked as a Whopper flopper at Burger King. I think work is valuable, and I think we shouldn’t shame people because their jobs are low paying or low prestige, but the other side of me knows that we are really funneling kids into the occupations that we expect for their social class. Middle class kids don’t have to grow-up as fast, in part because they will be starting their labor force participation later and because their parents know their incomes are going to be directly linked to having a higher level and better quality education.
I know I’m the exception. I’m the person who grew up in the very poor environment and “made it out” thanks to my mother’s college degree, my smarts, my determination, help from others, and lucky breaks (I’ve written a little about this before.). There is a huge part of me that feels happy that I had the experience of being poor, of having an outhouse, and of having to working in the school cafeteria, but that is largely because that was temporary for me. For a long time I didn’t regret these things because I didn’t really know exactly how middle class people really lived. Of course, I knew that they had wealthier schools (and indoor plumbing) and more opportunities, but I couldn’t clarify what exactly those were. I guess the one advantage I have at this point is that I am fairly able to go back and forth across class divides–I know about government cheese and I know what feta cheese is too. I wouldn’t be able to do this had I not grown up poor, and I wouldn’t have know how hard working and determined poor people are. I also wouldn’t recognize the advantages and privileges of my current class position, and I would treat them more as a given.
Congrats you made it to the end of this loooong piece!!!
- I also remember my dad going down to the fire station and getting some government cheese to eat at home. I would suspect that many people who have been poor and are over the age of 30 are familiar with government cheese, but if you are not, go check out the link. [↩]