BY CHRISTINE BERNSTEIN
The thoughts and opinions expressed here are my own and do not reflect those of the Los Alamos Public Schools board or the school district.
After three days and one week of school, there have been a lot of opinions, assumptions, and rumors- whatever you want to call them- about the new lunch program.
A brief lesson:
Senate Bill 4 was passed this past spring to support free breakfast and lunch for ALL students in New Mexico. Los Alamos put out a bid for vendors to prepare and deliver meals to our students. Chartwells was chosen; you can see or read more about it here. It is funded through the federal government and does not impact Los Alamos education funding or Leased funds. LAPS will be reimbursed by the state, which is not any different than how the state funds the schools.
After listening to people and reading all the comments on Facebook about school lunch, I decided to go see for myself. I went to Los Alamos High School and Aspen Elementary School. And here is what I observed:
The high school has three lines for students to get food. There were a lot of students participating in the lunches. I did notice that the proportions varied from upstairs to downstairs- 3 meatballs vs. two meatballs. One line had only one worker in it, so it moved more slowly. That day, the lunch consisted of meatballs, brown rice, carrots and peas or raw zucchini, tortilla chips, and some cinnamon bananas.
I walked around and talked to kids eating the hot lunch and those with their own lunch. There were mixed reviews. Some kids said they wouldn’t even try it; others had tried and didn’t like it. Other students liked it for a variety of reasons. Reviews ranged from “I like it”, “It’s pretty good” “It’s ok” and “It’s just school lunch” to “It’s gross.”
At Aspen, I noticed a quick and efficient system of getting the food to the kids, but they had a few more workers. The lunch consisted of 3 meatballs, brown rice, carrots and peas, tortilla chips and fruit. The elementary got three meatballs consistently, but very little vegetables- some trays had more than others.
I talked to the elementary kids, and they also had mixed reviews. Some said it was ok, some liked the rice and not the meat, or vice versa. Some had their own lunch and had said they tried it. Others said they won’t try it.
Then there was this one 4th grade boy. He was sitting alone at a table. I sat down across from him and asked him what he thought. He loved it. He thought it was great, and he enjoyed all the meals every day except for the half day because he didn’t take the sack lunch for whatever reason – I didn’t pry. He talked about how he loved the food and ate all of it. He had a big smile, and he was so full of gratitude. I thanked him for talking to me and then chatted for a bit with a teacher.
Then, on my way to work, I started thinking about that young man. And I thought, what if that’s the only meal he gets? What if? I have no idea what is in his world, and he may be getting all his needs met and simply loves the food. However, I saw and realized that there is the possibility that at least one kid in our community might benefit from free lunch and breakfast. If one kid feels nourished and fed, it is worth it. And even as I sit here writing this, I cry for any kid in our district, or anywhere for that matter. I don’t even understand the tears. This kid was so full of gratitude, and his big smile made me happy. Then I went home and cried. And I thought, this is why we do this. This young man, so full of gratitude, really got me thinking. Privilege comes in many forms and many levels. Many of us in this community have privilege. And this one kid made me see that. All the criticism, skepticism, and negative commentary I had been reading and hearing meant nothing because I realized that if one child gets fed, then this is why we do it.
If you have the time and resources to make your child food to pay for food, then remember that not everyone in this district has that.
A few years ago, while at a conference, the author of Pivot, Ravi Hutheesing, said two things that have stuck with me. The first was that school can’t be everything for everyone but needs to be something for everyone. And the other was that with privilege comes responsibility and to use privilege for good in the world.
I think about this a lot. We all have some level of privilege. I may not have as much privilege as a single mom as a stay-at-home mom, but I can feed my kids; I have some privileges that others may not have, even if I have less than others.
And what if…what if we have one kid in this community who may not get enough to eat daily? And what if, we, as a district, a state, a country, can give that one kid a meal?
By doing this one thing for this one kid, we might be making more than just a nutritional impact. It is hard to focus when you are hungry; it is hard to regulate emotions when hungry. It is hard to be ok when you are hungry.
This 4th-grade kid talked to me with a smile on his face, no complaint, just joy and expressing such happiness in the meals he is being given. I am not assuming that he is starving or not getting his needs met at home, but he made me realize that if it means this much to just one kid, then it is worth it.
And as a community, we should celebrate and share in his gratitude.
The school lunch program is definitely in the growing phases. It needs to get the kinks worked out. And all the issues I observed are solvable, not giant hurdles to overcome. There is a shortage of workers everywhere, including our lunch lines. I encourage you to volunteer your time. Also, find patience. Let the judgment slide on by, and ask, what can I do to help? How can I use my privilege to make it work for our kids?
I ask for a bit of grace and kindness as we all work towards making this new nutrition program work for our kids.
Because for some kids, it’s already working.