I first heard about “The Sharing Table” when my son came home from kindergarten and exclaimed, “No snack for me today! I had three hot dogs – plus my home lunch.” I pictured the Oscar Wienermobile pulling up at his school, tossing hot dogs like Mardi Gras beads. ”Where did you get three hot dogs?” “The Sharing Table, of course.”
The concept is simple. If there is something in your school lunch that you don’t like, you leave it on the table. If there is something in the school lunch that you want more of, or – if you are like my children – you would like to supplement to your home lunch, well, you can just help yourself. I couldn’t find any official Minneapolis Public Schools food policy, so I quizzed the kids.
Me: ”So, how did you find out about The Sharing Table?”
- Oldest son (age 12): ”Duh! It is right next to the Allergy Aware Table. You can’t miss it.” (This one has a peanut allergy.)
- Youngest son (age 9): ”I didn’t really know about it, but then I think the Lunchroom Teacher told us at some point. The Lunchroom Teacher is kind of mean. If you forget your lunch, you go to The Sharing Table.”
- Daughter (age 6 1/2): ”It’s right there! Kids put their grapes there. I like it when I can get the ‘mandrigan’ oranges. Sometimes I take something and put it in my lunchbox for a snack later.”
All three agreed that the only real rules were that the items on the Sharing Table had to be from the school lunch, i.e. pre-packaged. Sometimes the pre-packaged school lunches bum me out. When I was growing up in Louisiana, the lunches were not pre-packaged. They were made in the cafeteria kitchen by large African-American women who always seemed to be stirring giant stainless steel pots and having a grand old time. The East Baton Rouge Parish schools offered up jambalaya, shrimp creole, crawfish etouffee, cornbread, buttery rolls, yams, succotash, John Marzetti casserole, iced spice cake – for only 90 cents a lunch. My high school cafeteria had both a “hot lunch” side and a gumbo/salad bar/milkshake side.
Those East Baton Rouge Parish school lunches were some of the best in the world. The melamine compartment lunch trays (which I recall as being pastel green, orange, yellow, and blue) came back to the kitchen clean as a whistle – except when greens were served. Nobody EVER touched the greens. The greens remained on the trays in the perfect ice cream scooper-formed mounds in which they were served. The rumor was that the greens were actually grass and, in fact, there was some circumstantial evidence to support the hypothesis. Not only did they look exactly like grass, but I myself observed over years – at Magnolia Woods Elementary, at Wildwood Elementary, at Glasgow Middle Magnet – that greens were always on the menu THE DAY AFTER the janitors mowed. At Baton Rouge Magnet High, where students came from all over the parish, we did an informal survey and discovered that this was happening in all the school cafeterias. Harbinger of the locovore movement? Or just coincidence? You be the judge. All I know is that nobody EVER touched the greens.
One greens day when I was a sophomore in high school, I brought my lunch tray back to the kitchen. My tray was clean, except for the greens. On the conveyor belt, there was a long line of trays with ice cream scoop mounds of greens waiting to be dumped. The cafeteria lady who was spraying down the trays looked me in the eye and said,
“Y’all is wasting perfectly good greens. Y’all must not know what it’s like not having enough to eat.”
Y’all, in case you don’t know, can be used both in the singular as well as the plural. I understood exactly what she was saying that day – she meant both. The only possible response to this was, “Yes, ma’am.”
By which I meant, “I’m sorry.”
Last year 65% of kids in grades K-8 qualified for free and reduced lunch. I think The Sharing Table is a fine way to make sure that all of these kids get enough to eat. At my kids’ schools they also have R.O.T., where the kids have to sort the remains of their lunches into recycling, organics, and trash. I think that’s a good idea, too.
This Thanksgiving I am thankful for the many blessings in my life: for my family, my health, the opportunity to do good work. I rediscovered my love of writing this year and I’m grateful for that, too. I’m thankful to that long-ago Baton Rouge High School lunchlady. And I’m also thankful for The Sharing Table. My children are learning lessons at school that are not in any curriculum. They are learning a lifestyle of avoiding waste and paying attention to what happens to their garbage. They are learning, by giving and taking equally, that if you have more than you need, you should share it. If you need more than you have, you can take it without questions or shame. It’s not political, it’s just about being together in a community. Today I am thankful that I am not alone in raising these children to be good citizens of their community.
Throwdown* Crawfish Etouffe
1 lb. crawfish tail meat (can also use shrimp or catfish)
2-3 teaspoons Tony Cacherie’s Creole seasoning (if you don’t have that, use 2 tsp. salt, 2 tsp. garlic powder and 1/2 tsp. cayenne)
1/2 stick of butter
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
2 bunches scallions (green onions), chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 can Rotel Tomatoes (diced tomatoes with green chiles)
1 can Campell’s Cream of Mushroom soup (the TRUE secret of Cajun cooking!)
Mix seasoning with crawfish and put in refrigerator for 30 minutes.
Over medium-high heat, melt the butter in a heavy pot. Add the chopped onions, celery and garlic and saute until the yellow onion is translucent. Add the seasoned crawfish and mix real good. After about a minue, add the can of soup (no water) and stir. Then add the Rotel tomatoes and mix. Lower the heat, cover the pot, and cook the rice. Stir the etoufee often and simmer over low heat for 20 minutes. Season to taste with more Tony’s.
*The lazy version
JOHN MARZETTI CASSEROLE
Not my recipe, but I ate a whole lot of it and make it for my family now. I do wonder how a dish from Ohio became such a mainstay on the EBRP public school lunch menu. Here is the source for this version of the recipe.
3 tbsp. olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
¾ lb. mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
2 lbs. lean ground beef
3 ½ cups tomato sauce
1 ½ lbs. cheddar cheese, shredded
1 lb. elbow macaroni, cooked and drained
In skillet, saute onion in oil until limp, about 3 minutes. Add mushrooms and fry until juices are released, about 5 minutes. Add beef and cook, stirring, breaking up clumps, until no longer red. Remove from heat and mix in tomato sauce and all but 1 cup of cheese. Transfer to greased 9- by 13-inch baking dish and add macaroni. Toss gently to mix. Scatter remaining cheese on top. Bake, uncovered, in 350-degree oven until browned and bubbling (35 to 40 minutes). Serves 10 to 12.