“You ate all your food today,” my mom announced as she emptied out my lunch bag, soaking the empty Tupperware containers in the sink. She sounded impressed.
“No, I didn’t,” I shook my head. I sat at the kitchen table behind her colouring in my homework. “I gave my apple and my fruit roll-up to Sylvia.”
“What?” My mom frowned, turning to look at me. “Why did you do that?”
“She didn’t bring a lunch today,” I shrugged.
Something on my mom’s face changed when I said that, but I couldn’t quite figure out why. She kept asking questions, “what do you mean she didn’t have a lunch? Did she forget it at home?”
“I don’t think so.” I tried to think back to what she’d said at lunch. “Her mom told her she needed to give their food to her little sister. I guess because she’s a baby.”
“Where does your friend Sylvia live?”
I didn’t know that. I barely knew where I lived. “She walks to school.”
The next morning my purple Gap lunch bag was heavier than usual. When she dropped me off at school, she urged, “share your food with whoever asks. If anybody else doesn’t have a lunch, give them some of yours.”
Well, that was a ticket to instant popularity. My Hot Rods were always a big hit among my peers. And my pudding cups. I never was a big eater, so I didn’t mind sharing even my sandwiches. But I kept the chocolate to myself.
A few months later, the school introduced The Snack Program. Free snacks before first recess for all students! It was amazing. Getting the snacks, 10 minutes before the bell, became a daily routine in our class. Every week we would have two special helpers from the class assigned to retrieve the snacks from the office. It was a coveted position to have in our second grade class. A lot of the time the snacks were fruit, sometimes they were those disgusting Nutri-Grain bars, but on the best days we’d get cheese and crackers!
After the success of The Snack Program, the school went on to introduce The Lunch Program. In addition to the first recess snack, they were now offering students a free lunch as well. The difference this time was that The Lunch Program wasn’t automatically for every student. You had to sign up to join, but everyone was welcome to sign up.
“You can’t join the lunch program,” my mom explained matter-of-factly as she scanned through the permission form the school had sent home.
“What?! Why!?” I wailed, outraged.
“Because I can make you a lunch at home,” she told me. “Some people’s parents can’t, and they’re the ones that should sign up.”
“But EVERYONE is going to sign up! And if I don’t sign up, I won’t get to ever be the helper to get the food from the office!” Tears were streaming down my irrational seven-year-old face. “Maybe I won’t be able to even eat in the classroom if I don’t sign up! Maybe I’ll have to eat alone!”
In the end, I got my way. My mom reluctantly signed me up for The Lunch Program. I was right that most of my classmates signed up, except for the kids whose parents dropped off McDonald’s for them, or the kids whose grandparents came to pick them up for lunch. I always felt the worst for the kids who went home for lunch because all the best games were played at lunch recess. They always missed out.
The first day of The Lunch Program, I was handed two pieces of white bread, crust in tact, surrounding a single flat slice of a deli meat I could not identify. It wasn’t even cut in half. My eyes widened. Slowly, I lifted the corner of the top piece of bread and saw a smear of bright yellow zigzagged across my sandwich. Mustard. I’d never tried it before.
“Miss, what meat is this?” Asked my classmate Gadisa, with her slight Ethiopian accent. I was glad she asked.
“It’s baloney,” the teacher explained. “Kind of like a ham.”
I liked ham. I liked salami. Prosciutto. Mortadella. That’s what my mom would have made me today. In a dinner roll or a baguette. White bread was reserved specifically for Nutella, or toast with breakfast.
I took one bite of that baloney sandwich and soon discovered it was not for me. I rewrapped the rest of my sandwich and put it back in my backpack. I’d show my grandmother later. She’d be shocked. We’d have a good laugh.
When I glanced up, I saw Sylvia wrapping up half of her sandwich too. I giggled, “you didn’t like it either, eh?”
Sylvia shook her head. “I’m saving the rest for my brother. They don’t have a lunch program at the high school.”
That’s when what my mom was trying to explain to me suddenly made sense. I unenrolled from The Lunch Program soon after that. I was fortunate enough not to need it.