I've been receiving quite a few newsletters and emails from various food organizations lately about the issues of childhood obesity and inferior school lunch programs. Most recently SlowFoods with the "Time for Lunch" campaign. It's an appeal to congress, asking them to revamp the school nutrition program. I signed, and I hope you will as well. I also keep an eye on a couple of newspaper web sites where the food discussion is more than just a home cook shilling for the local grocery store chain. (Do you hear me St. Louis Post-Dispatch?) I especially enjoy reading articles in the Food Matters section of the San Francisco Chronicle.
This whole school lunch discussion started me reminiscing about what my school lunches were like when I was in elementary school.
That would be 1956 - 1963 in the small Ozark mountain town of Hollister, Missouri. Back in the day when Branson was just the bigger small town next door. (Branson wasn't BRANSON yet.) And Hollister was only a poor little spot in the road.
When I say poor I mean dirt poor. Hollister is in Taney County. In the 1950s & 60s Taney was the poorest county, per-capita, in the state of Missouri.
Back then, the women in the cafeteria came in very early in the morning to fix pancakes, bacon and eggs, and homemade biscuits for the kids they knew didn't get a breakfast at home. Nobody kept track of who those kids were, and noone had to fill out any financial hardship paperwork. If a kid was hungry, he got off the bus and went to the cafeteria. He wolfed down a nice hot breakfast and then he went to his classroom.
Back then the lunch ladies actually cooked lunch. From scratch. Every day.
Back then there weren't any big food companies like Sysco bringing tractor trailer loads of cardboard boxes full of high fructose corn syrup, fat & chemical laden processed frozen foods to our school.
Back then there weren't any frozen fish sticks or chicken nuggets or individual foil sealed cups of syrupy fruit cocktail.
Instead, there was something called commodities. Commodities came in wooden crates, gunny sacks and bushel baskets.
Fresh green beans. Fresh brown eggs. Whole fresh milk in grey metal 20 gallon cans. Flour. Sugar. Corn meal. Lard. Fresh butter. Bacon. Peanuts. Oatmeal. Whole chickens & turkeys. Grits. Apples. Great northern beans. Cheese wheels. Tuna. Salmon. Onions. Blackeyed peas. Collard greens. Cottage Cheese. Turnips. Beets. Corn that needed to be shucked. Peas that needed to be shelled. Carrots. Rubarb. Potatoes. Hamhocks. Sweet Potatoes. Okra. Cabbage. (That's just the things I can remember off the top of my head.)
These commodities were delivered by various means. Some from local farmers. Some from the local coop. They came to our lunch ladies, fresh and often straight from the producer.
Nothing was shipped to China first to be processed and turned into mystery meat. Just to be shipped back to us. "Dead' food - packaged in poisonous plastic - ready to be nuked for our enjoyment.
Each week the lunch ladies had to wait to find out what would be in their larder before deciding on the next week's menus.
I remember Chicken and Dumplings with homemade biscuits. I remember Hamhocks and blackeyed peas with fresh sweet cornbread. I remember homemade cabbage slaw with beet pickles. I remember macaroni and cheese made with real cheese, not orange dyed powder or Velveeta. I remember fried chicken with fried okra, mashed potatoes and milk gravy. I remember huge pans of fresh warm bread pudding (half made with raisins and half without for those of us who didn't like raisins in our bread pudding). I remember rubarb pie. I remember chocolate brownies dusted with powdered sugar. I remember oatmeal sandwich cookies with fresh homemade peanut butter as a filling.
I remember that the meals from Monday through Thursday were hot and plentiful, and we got tired of eating so much and so well.
But on Friday, the lunch ladies slacked off. During the week, they had been roasting and grinding the turkeys. They baked homemade bread. They made fresh bread & butter pickles. And they baked homemade apple crisp. So that our traditional Friday lunch would be easy for them, and a welcome picnic for us.
Friday's menu -- Turkey salad sandwiches with pickles, cottage cheese on a pineapple ring, and homemade sweet potato chips. Oh yes, and hot apple crisp for dessert.
We all drank milk for lunch. Whole white milk. Not sweet drinks. Well all but one. One girl in my class got special treatment. I still remember her name, Vicki. Vicki didn't like milk. So, Alma, the head lunch lady (who happened to be Vicki's aunt) put a teaspoon of sugar in her glass of milk every day.
Here's something else I remember...
In my grade there were about 41 kids. Of those 41 kids, there were just three who could be described by today's standards as "over weight". Not fat, not morbidly obese mind you. Just a bit pudgie. That's a 7% rate, compared to today's rate of more than 25%.
Does anyone else remember eating real food when they were kids? Looking back on it now, I realize how very blessed - and healthy - we were.