The Lunch Man: One person can make all the difference

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Illustration by Kathryn Halloway.

I was shy when I entered first grade at Benson Hill Elementary School in Renton.

I don’t remember the name of the school. It’s been nearly 50 years and those records have long since been lost. But I know I wasn’t there long – just a year. My stepfather was in the military and that meant we moved around a lot.

But I remember the lunch man. I will call him Mr. Park because his name too has been consumed by the fog of the years and the 14 different school canteens of my childhood.

He was the only man in a line of lunch ladies who manned the dishes counter. Every day he stood ready with his ladle, his wide, twinkling smile, and a word of encouragement for every child – whether they thought they needed it or not.

words of encouragement

“Keep your head up!” to the waiter two trays in front of him who ignored him and hurried off.

“Give yourself fuel to be cool!” to the girl in front of me.

And to me: “You’re A-OK.”

He always winked at me when I secretly handed him my free lunch card, trying to hide it from the other kids. I had overheard my parents arguing about how embarrassed my mother was that we were so poor that we needed free food.

“These children would starve without the gifts,” my mother had shouted. I have nothing but compassion today. I can’t imagine the struggle she had to face trying to feed four children on an enlisted military salary. But in the first year, I was already beginning to believe that the level of income was equal to its value. I became the always embarrassed girl who sat on the last seat at the last table at the back of the cafeteria, trying to become invisible.

The opposite of invisible

But Mr. Park saw me.

From time to time, he would step out of the lunch queue, raise five children around the great hall, and return home in line to the delight of teachers and students alike. He never forgot me around. If I was very shy and kept my hand down, he raised it, reminding me:

“Happy is a two-way street! I need your encouragement!”

One day, I slipped my card under my milk. There was no need to hide it. At that point, I realized that if I was last in line, no one would see it. He gave me a knowing look, then reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet.

“You know what it is,” he asked conspiratorially, handing her a card. “It’s my free lunch ticket.”

so special

My eyes widened in surprise.

“And you know what that means? It means that I am so special and so precious that the entire government of the United States of America wants to make sure that I have the best food ever. The three lunch ladies lined up next to him also pulled out cards, smiling and nodding.

“It looks like they think you’re awfully special too,” Mr Park said. “Be proud!”

They could have pulled their driver’s license out of their pocket as far as I know. But I beamed to my distant table. I shone like a star. I got up and pulled a few tables closer to my classmates.

And so, I went through the first year, eating bright orange macaroni and cheese, crinkle squares of jello, “mystery meat” with gravy, drinking not-quite-cold milk from cartons and heading towards the community.

A strange and frightening loss

There’s another thing I remember about my freshman year at Renton.

Halfway through the year, our teacher, Mrs. Evans, had a heart attack during math class and died in front of my class.

The room filled with police and doctors. We students were ushered into the cafeteria. Most of the children did not quite understand what had happened. They were happy to be out of class. But I was in the front row when Mrs. Evans died and I was devastated. She had been very nice to me.

Hugs, not pencils

The principal gave us coloring pages and crayons and the lunch ladies brought chocolate pudding. I sat gasping in my corner.

Mr. Park came out of the kitchen and walked towards me. He put his arm around me and comforted me. The rules for hugging a sad child were more flexible then.

“Let it out. You let him out, he whispered softly. “Everything will be A-OK.”

The lunch man always with me

Finally, I stopped crying. A new teacher has arrived. The routine has returned. Going to lunch with my special Mr. Park high-five ticket has become my favorite part of the day. I don’t know if school meals then were healthy by today’s standards. I guess the ingredients had too much fat, salt and sugar. I will never know if the meat was really meat. Looking at recent Renton School District menus, I still see the pizzas and chicken nuggets, fish fingers and spaghetti I was served, now enhanced by a “fruit and veg garden bar.” daily as well as alternative milk choices.

But I know those meals filled me up and gave me the energy I needed to get through the day until dinner. I was a good student and grew into a healthy adult.

I also know that the lunch man nurtured me in a way that continues to benefit and support me and my children today.

Learn more about Seattle’s Child:

“Seattle’s School Lunch Revolution”

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