The Sharing Table

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


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.

You Really Can’t Make This Stuff Up – Part II

In our office, we have a mantra: “You have to laugh or else you would cry.”   Maybe working in the field of human rights exposes us to more situations where crazy and ridiculous things happen, but my hunch is – probably not.  All you have to do is read the newspaper (how about that woman who tried to mail a puppy?) or watch an episode of  “The Office” to come to a different conclusion.  The common element here is that we are all humans.  We can all be petty and mean and make a big deal about things that seem to be critically important to us at the time, but which, in the grand scheme of things, don’t really matter. We don’t always think through the consequences of our actions and we’re usually not very self-aware. That means that we cause crazy and ridiculous things to happen in our interactions with each other.  What I’ve learned – and what I’m trying to teach my kids – is that you can’t control what other people do.  But you can control how you handle your reaction to the crazy and ridiculous things that happen to you.  

Let me tell you a story about one of my asylum clients who had to deal with something crazy and ridiculous and totally out of her control.  Asylum seekers are fingerprinted as part of the asylum application process so that the fingerprint can be checked against the millions of fingerprints in the government’s electronic database.   After her asylum interview, my client was instructed to put her index finger on small pad to take an electronic fingerprint.  The asylum officer, looking at the computer monitor, got a strange look on her face.   “Try it again,” she instructed.   My client did so.  “You have to look at this,” she said to me.   

I could see that my client was getting more and more nervous by the second.  She was an older woman from a country in West Africa.   She had a valid asylum claim, but it wasn’t the strongest case in the world.  To be granted asylum in the U.S., you have to show that you have suffered past persecution or have a well-founded fear of persecution on the basis of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or social group.   That definition comes from the 1950 Refugee Convention, and it reflects the experience of World War II rather than the modern experience of conflict.  The biggest problem I saw when I was doing asylum work was not that people were coming to the U.S. and fraudulently applying for asylum.   The biggest problem was that there were a lot of people who had experienced persecution but couldn’t show why there was a connection to one of the five grounds.  In other words, if you were a victim of random violence in a war in your home country, that isn’t enough to get you asylum in the U.S.  We had worked hard to put together a case for my client that showed that the killing of her family and the burning of her home was connected to her tribe (social group) being targeted by one of the fighting factions.  She had testified honestly and well.  And now, from her perspective, she was going to be denied the safety of staying in the U.S. because of something completely out of her control.  Something was wrong with her fingerprint.  

My client and I went around to the other side of the desk and looked at the computer screen.   There was the digital image of a fingerprint.  Right next to it was a photograph of a young, surly-looking man.  Under the photo was a caption that said,  “Guatemalan Recidivist”.   The asylum officer and I looked at each other, paused, and then just burst out laughing.   My client didn’t laugh, though.  “But that’s not me!” she insisted.   “No, of course not,” said the asylum officer.  “But that’s not me!” my client said again.   “It’s picking up only part of your fingerprint and matching you with the Guatemalan guy,” said the asylum officer.  “Sometimes that happens, especially if you’ve got dry skin.  I’ll get you some lotion and we’ll try again.”  My client looked relieved.  “OK, because if there is one thing I know, it is that I am NOT from Guatemala.”  As I was driving her back to her house, I told my client, “Sometimes you have to laugh about these things or else you would cry.”  Maybe I said it before that day, but that is the first time I remember saying it.  

As a coping strategy, humor has come in handy for me when dealing with the absurdities of parenthood.  It’s probably safe to say that having a sense of humor about the crazy and ridiculous things my children have done has saved my sanity.  I’ll close with a few examples of situations where I had to laugh or else I would cry.  

This photo of my ruined front lawn was selected for the “Sh*t My Kids Ruined” book.  I couldn’t find a photo that was high enough resolution for the publishers, so I’m not sure that it will be included.  

I posted this photo on Facebook a couple weeks ago with the caption “Sometimes I’m not sure how I’m gonna make it through the next 9 winters.”

Finally, here is a video of my family in Olso, shortly after we had to leave the Nobel Peace Prize Center because my children were fighting too much.  It’s going to come in handy if one of them ever wins the Nobel Peace Prize.

You really, really can’t make this stuff up!