“There they are—I swear these people are dependable.”
Jock grinned and waved back at the group. They congregated by the pop-up tent outside the cafeteria entrance to New Hanover High School. It was cold and pouring rain, but they were out there with umbrellas and smiles.
We live directly behind New Hanover High School, so it makes for interesting experiences: fire drills in our front yard and the pledge of allegiance broadcast over loudspeakers every morning. When the school gets locked down, we are locked in our house, too. We have learned to not leave the house between 7:45 a.m. and 8:35 a.m. when school starts and again when it dismisses from 3:15 p.m. to 3:45 p.m. It is easier to avoid the crush of students and cars, and instead of complaining about lack of parking during afterschool events (basketball games, cheerleading competitions, play rehearsals, etc.), I say to myself, “I’m just glad kids have extracurricular activities in their lives.”
Now the loudspeakers are silent in the morning, and we don’t hear the constant slam of metal doors and animated chatter of teenagers changing classes.
Frankly, it is quite lonely.
The bright spot, actually, is the tent set up outside the school and welcoming faces congregating around it everyday. We watch school buses pull up alongside SUVs and jalopies. Everyone is greeted warmly and chatted with, and containers of food get loaded.
When schools closed from COVID-19, community-wide worry rose for the kids who depend on school for nourishment. New Hanover County School system decided to open drive-through/walk-up service at numerous school sites from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. for meals to be given to any child ages 0-18. Families just tell staff how many meals are needed, and they are provided lunch and the following day’s breakfast.
“School buses are actually picking up and delivering food,” New Hanover Assistant Principal Jesse May explained.
The buses drive a route that serves 50 delivery points around the county. It is a pretty remarkable bit of organization. Students who need delivery can sign up for a meal at www.nhcs.net and select their delivery location from a drop-down menu.
Or kids who live outside the area of delivery can appoint someone, like a neighbor coming, to pick up the meals. “We have one lady who comes and picks up 30,” May continues. “Our site alone averag[es] over 200 [meals a day].”
Thanks to the opening of additional sites for cooking and distributing, these numbers are actually down from a couple of weeks ago when the high school was sending out 600 meals a day.
This seems to address a lot of needs at once: In addition to the most pressing issue of keeping kids fed, it also allows bus drivers and cafeteria workers who would otherwise be out of work to stay on payroll. “They’re preparing every day,” May explains of cafeteria staff. “It’s not a whole staff, but they’ve got enough to get it done, apparently.”
School lunch, as ubiquitous as it seems to many, is actually a product of the Truman administration. Signed into law in 1946, the program was created to provide free or low-cost meals to students in public schools. Like many social programs, the idea went through a few fits and starts before it became standard. Not surprisingly, well-meaning ladies’ charitable organizations sprang up that decided to feed lunch to school children.
As I have said many times before, stand between ladies’ charitable organizations and their goals at your own peril. These groups of women throughout the country pressed forward with their aims, and in many rural places donated cooking implements to let teachers prepare stews or soups at school. Rural schools frequently had a wood-burning stove where a stew pot could bubble quietly during morning classes.
But real change came for the entire county in the 1930s. The power of the social safety net and what it could mean for the masses was all too apparent. The New Deal funded many programs, including the Works Progress Administration, which employs millions of job-seekers to carry out public works projects, and 4-H through the Department of Agriculture. In addition, focus was put on buying farmers’ crops and distributing as much food as possible to as many people as possible.
According to NCpedia: “In 1930, North Carolinians imported a large amount of their food and feed. One of every 3 pounds of beef, two of five pigs, 2 of 3 quarts of milk, and one of two chickens and eggs eaten in the state had to be imported.”
Aren’t we an agricultural state?
The school lunch program provided an avenue to put men to work through the WPA small cooking houses near rural schools.
NCpedia also notes, “The New Deal’s Work Progress Administration (WPA) built 140 community clubhouses for Home Demonstration clubs in rural areas. The structures were log cabin construction, with stone fireplaces, kitchens, and indoor plumbing if available.”
The 4-H program, then exclusively for women in North Carolina, was called “Home Demonstration.” Fifty-three counties had Home Demonstration clubs, and 51 of the clubs had a school lunch program.
In my lifetime the two loudest public debates about school lunches occurred during the Reagan and Obama administrations, respectively. Remember the “ketchup is a vegetable” situation in the early 1980s, right? Michelle Obama made school lunch nutrition a priority for her time as first lady, and the program went through a drastic overhaul that expanded fruit and vegetable offerings, and reduced the number of trans fats and sodium used. The Obamas were keenly aware of the importance of access to food in food deserts and the power of schools in vulnerable neighborhoods, so it wasn’t surprising school lunch became so important to the first lady.
May notes, like select other county schools, New Hanover High School qualifies for 100% free and reduced meals. “So none of our students pay for breakfast or lunch on a daily basis, even when they are here,” he tells. That statement makes me think that once we are on the other side of all this and ready to have a serious discussion about what a social safety net looks like—and how benefits spread across invisible boundaries we create—maybe we should address the underlying conditions that make New Hanover High School’s student body vulnerable to begin with. If you think you don’t benefit from that safety net because you are not personally in line to pick up lunch right now, I would ask you to consider Jean Valjean’s position in “Les Misérables”:
“Javert: You are a thief!
“Valjean: I stole a loaf of bread.
“Javert: You robbed a house!
“Valjean: I broke a windowpane. My sister’s child was close to death. And we were starving.”
Who among us, if forced to, would not turn to such means to save our loved ones? Has anyone ever broken into your house in a state of desperation? No? Then you, my friend, are a beneficiary of the social safety net. Congratulations. May you never have to face a decision so dire or watch your loved ones suffer.
May applauds the cafeteria workers for preparing the meals and the volunteers who show up every day and make feeding the kids possible. He praises the many pulling up in the cars to make deliveries. “It is all of those people who deserve the credit because without them it doesn’t happen,” he says.