2007-11-07 / Editorials

No five-star lunches

Other Voices
Mitch Clarke

I suppose all of us, when we were kids, complained about the food in the lunchroom. It just seems to be one of those rites of childhood.

Almost everybody has a story about the "Mystery Meat" their lunch ladies served. It was usually some kind of meat - I always assumed, but could never prove, that it was beef - covered in a brown, thick gravy that further disguised it.

Then there were the mashed potatoes that often had the consistency of paste.

And if your school was like mine, pizza day always came with a side of corn. I don't know why they served corn with pizza. But they did. Every time.

I wonder now, looking back with the benefit of age and hindsight, if maybe those school lunches weren't as bad as we thought they were.

I bring this up because I ate lunch with my 8-yearold niece, Hunter, last week at her school, Riverbend Elementary. Hunter is known around the school for her lunchtime entourage, a group of family and friends who regularly come to the school to eat with her.

I don't get to go as often as I'd like because I have a job. But Hunter doesn't understand that, and it's hard to tell her no when she asks me to come.

I'd like to think that Hunter invites me because she loves her uncle and wants to spend time with me. And I'm certain that's a part of it.

But I'm also convinced that she invites me because students that have guests at lunch get to sit at a special table, and they don't have to follow all the rules imposed by the lunchroom monitor, who has the impossible task of trying to keep a lunchroom full of elementary school students quiet.

Keeping a lunchroom full of elementary school students quiet for an entire lunch period is akin to teaching poetry to a possum, as in it can't be done. But the lunchroom monitor still gives it her best effort.

Hunter doesn't eat the lunchroom food. Instead, her father - my brother - gets up every morning and prepares her lunch, which is exactly the same every day: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a kid's size package of Pringle's potato chips, a yogurt cup, cheese and a juice bag.

That, incidentally, is the exact order in which she eats her lunch. Sandwich first, then chips, yogurt, cheese, juice. Never in another order. Never mixed.

She gets it naturally. My aunt, Mary Price, apparently did the same thing when she was a child. Aunt Mary Price would eat the meat in front of her, then pick up the plate and turn it so the potatoes were in front of her. When she finished the potatoes, she'd turn the plate so that the peas were in front of her.

None of her food could touch on the plate, either. I'm sure they tried to explain to her that it was all getting mixed up in her stomach, but trying to explain the human digestion system to a kid is like trying to keep a lunchroom full of elementary school kids quiet.

This was the first time I've actually eaten lunch with Hunter. I've been to the school during her lunch many times, but last year, her lunch period was at 10:45, which was just too early for me to eat lunch.

But this year, she eats lunch at 12:10, so I decided to go through the line and buy lunch. To be honest, I was pleasantly surprised, and it led to a revelation.

One of the reasons kids don't like the school lunches is that it doesn't taste like the lunches their mothers made. We're creatures of habit, and we get used to food being a certain way. My mother, for instance, would never serve corn with pizza.

My lunch with Hunter consisted of a toasted turkey sandwich, tater tots - come on, it isn't a lunchroom lunch if there are no tater tots - and some grapes.

No, the Riverbend lunchroom isn't going to get five stars in the next Zagat's survey. But the food was hot, it tasted good, it was served by people who seemed genuinely pleased I was at their school and it only cost $2.75, a bargain anywhere.

But the best part? No mystery meat.

Mitch Clarke is executive editor of The Times in Gainesville, Ga. He can be reached at mclarke@ gainesvilletimes.com.

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