Afterthoughts: The Lunch Club
My middle school had the best cafeteria food around. And not just because it was free.
I’d sit in Algebra, watching the clock, wondering how early I could chance raising my hand to be excused from class. Fifteen minutes before the first lunch bell rang, I went for it.
All eyes turned toward me, the quiet girl who never asked questions or volunteered answers. Mr. Sumida nodded in my direction over the projector, giving me silent permission to leave. I grabbed my backpack and headed to work.
For two years in middle school I served lunch in the cafeteria, thanks to a hookup from my friend’s mom who worked at Niu Valley Middle School. It was great—I left class early and got free food every day. I and a few other students would come into the kitchen through the back door, tie up our hair, wash our hands, put on aprons and gloves, and get into position. Some days I’d place a particular item on every one of the hundreds of trays that went out; others, I’d be in charge of the teacher line, nervously trying to make change for the math teacher who just handed me extra quarters so he’d get full dollars back.
And the food was great. There were two entrée choices, a pretty robust salad bar and often a choice of desserts. Foods we all assumed had come premade in elementary school were actually made fresh that morning at Niu Valley, as we discovered when we opened rolling cabinets of shelves upon shelves of hot trays that looked nothing like their elementary school counterparts: lasagna, pizza, saimin, roast chicken. On days we offered a few dozen cinnamon buns for dessert, kids would come up to me in the morning to ask if I could put one on the side for them since they’d sell out so quickly. I’d often say no (we could only reserve one and I knew the boy I had a crush on would want to buy it from me), but it was possibly the only time in my childhood that I was popular—if only because I had access to the goods.
Our crew had our own little lunch club after everyone else left. We would grab our entrées and then head to the salad bar in the teacher’s break room, a private room in the corner of the cafeteria, to get our sides, often taking more than we could eat just because we could. I always felt out of place, trying to sneak unnoticed along the wall while the teachers used the one hour of their workday away from children to talk like adults.
I’d load up on lomi tomato, sweet rolls and pineapple chunks, then eat with my friends. We were free to go outside and enjoy the rest of recess, but often we sat together in the kitchen, savoring being somewhere no other student was allowed. At Christmas, the cafeteria manager gave me a mug as a thank you for helping; I still drink hot chocolate from it more than 15 years later. New wellness and nutrition guidelines for the state have been implemented since I’ve graduated from eighth grade, but during a period of major life changes for all of us—new bodies, new friends, new experiences—it was nice to have a safe place we felt valued, especially if it came with Oreo pudding and extra chocolate milk.