Posted on April 11th, 2011
Every school day at noon, Mrs. Uttke (“Mrs. Pukey”) attempted to shush us all into submission, and if that didn’t work, she’d resort to raising a shrill voice that echoed against the classroom walls. Her eyes flashed red, and the flab on her cheeks and arms quivered with impatience. Strung out and running on fumes, we’d manage to assemble into a fidgety line with our little hands out, and she checked our names against the list that sorted us by Poor, Kind of Poor, and Not Poor. She walked down the line, doling out a little purple ticket for all of the hot lunch students from the roll she kept in her yellow oak desk.
Some kids’ families paid full price for the luxury of not having to rustle a lunch together, some paid a reduced price, but mine paid nothing for my hot lunch. What I ate for lunch on any given day had been preordained by Portland Public Schools nutritionists, and was already up on the calendar with alphabets, numbers and star-spangled performance charts, tacked to the classroom wall.
Like the families of the other full-strength purple ticket kids, my family was also on food stamps. These were the actual giant, conspicuous paper food stamps, before today’s discreet EBT cards that allow the recipients to maintain a shred of dignity. When pulled from your mom’s purse, food stamps were a flashing neon sign with blinking arrows pointing at you, that announced “Hey Everybody! Everybody, Look. These People Have Made Regrettable Decisions.”
Since there were no grocery stores in the neighborhood, my mom would either have to ride the bus to shop at Kienow’s a mile away, or would just buy what she could at the little convenience store on the corner (the Korean owners were wary of robbery and kept menacing-looking Doberman pincers on the premises). Food stamps were primarily used to pay for anything we couldn’t get from the food bank − mostly stuff like frozen fish sticks, hot dogs, or bags of Red Delicious apples (which, truthfully, are accurately described by only one of those adjectives). I would sometimes beg my mother to buy liver for a good old L&O, but I think she was a little embarrassed to buy this humblest of meats, and would shy away from it most of the time with a “No, honey…” Or maybe it was too sketchy to bring home a sloshy tub of blood and organ on the bus and she was just thinking practically.
We’d get the giant bag of generic “Cheery-Os” from the bottom shelf of the breakfast aisle, never the preferred, brand-name cereal that had popular cartoon characters on the box and prizes inside. Nonperishable foodstuffs like canned vegetables and pasta usually came from the food bank.
One of my favorite parts of being on a federally-funded diet was the proverbial “government cheese” – the foot-long, 5lb box of sliced subsidy. We didn’t get it that often, so I never had a chance to get tired of it. It had a delightfully unassuming flavor and melted if you even breathed on it. A box would last so long that by the time we reached the end of it, the edges had gone all orange-plasticky and hard like the bait on a mousetrap.
I ate pretty much anything that was put in front of me. If I turned my nose up, it meant I didn’t get anything for dinner, and it probably meant I’d get my ass whupped, too, depending on my dad’s tolerance for bullshit on any given night. Most of the time, I needed no such goading to clean my plate – having a littermate to race for seconds was usually enough of a motivation. I handily defeated my brother in this competitive feeding frenzy. I usually hoovered my lunches, too.