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.

How To Live To 101

My Grandpa Olaf at 99

When people asked him his secret to living past 100, my Grandpa Olaf  had a standard response:  “Don’t die!”  But truth be told, he had more going for him than just his sense of humor and hardy Norwegian genes.  My grandpa actually DID have a secrets, rules he lived by that help explain his long and good life.

My Grandpa Olaf – who would have turned 104 this week – was born in 1907 and died in his sleep right before Christmas 2008.    My middle son cried even more than I did when we got the news.  I’m so thankful that my children knew him well, the man with the Winnie-the-Pooh voice. The man full of joie de vivre who taught me to ride a bike and twirled me on the dance floor at my wedding.  The loving man who made the doll bed that my daughter’s Americal Girls “sleep” in today.

The amazing thing is that, not only did my Grandpa Olaf live to be 101, but he was still going so strong.  When he was 99, my mom had to ask him to (please!) stop travelling .  He did –  internationally, at least – but he still got a huge kick out of showing people his ID with the 1907 birthdate.  He did not get much of a kick, however, out of the fact that after he turned 100,  the box marked “1907”  disappeared as a birthdate choice on most online forms.  That made him mad.

Some secrets are just not meant to be kept and I’m sure my Grandpa Olaf wouldn’t mind me sharing a few of his.  So here goes:

Two almonds a day keep cancer away.  From the time of my earliest memories, he had a big jar of raw almonds in the kitchen.  When I stayed with my grandparents, he made me eat them, too.  Turns out tat there is ongoing research on the phytochemicals in almonds which may have potential health benefits, including preventing cancer.  In any event, almonds are cholesterol-free, a good source of dietary fiber, and high in monounsaturated fat (which lowers LDL cholesterol).

Show up!!!  This was the guy who never missed a graduation – or any other important event in our lives, for that matter.  He even bore witness to my brief stage career, which ended after a single performance of Alice in Wonderland in 5th grade at Wildwood Elementary School in Baton Rouge, La. (Guess who played Alice? Guess who memorized everyone else’s lines and said them for them – sotto voce –  if they missed their cue? Afterwards, Grandpa Olaf said to me, “Well, Jen, you really gave it your all!”)  As I grow older, I realize more and more how important it is to show up for the important events.  My regrets definitely center more on things that I have not done and weddings I have missed than things that I have done.

Appreciate your spouse.  Husband, wife, life partner, whatever. “The best thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother.” My grandpa made this sign for my dad, who later gave it to my husband.

Never stop learning.    He had a tough childhood in a poor,  immigrant family.  The kind where your Norwegian mama makes you take castor oil but you have to line your holey shoes with cardboard.  He had to drop out of school to work and never made it past about sixth grade.   But he valued education above all else, and sent his daughters to the best schools he could.  He was so proud of my mother, the first in her family to get a PhD.  As an adult, he chose to learn through experience.  Between the ages of 65 and 99 – and particularly after age 80 – he traveled the world.  (If you have a bucket list – Grandpa Olaf says to prioritize the Galapagos Islands.)

Make the effort to connect with people.  My grandpa was a pretty social guy, one who believed strongly in getting out there and talking with people. He also liked to help and volunteered his skills with a number of nonprofits, fixing things for seniors and building community theater sets.   He lived for the last decade or so of his life at the Holladay Park Plaza in Portland, Oregon; people there called him “The Mayor”.

Fight for what’s right.  A union member for nearly 70 years, my grandpa used to tell me stories about having to wear flannel pjs under his wafer-thin airplane mechanic uniform in the Minnesota sub-zero winter cold.  He was part of the fight for every benefit and workplace protection, from insulated uniforms and hearing protection to paid vacation to safety regulations.  He was really, really proud of that.

My daughter chatting with my Grandpa Olaf

Spend time with children.  I fondly remember my grandfather  reading the Brer Rabbit stories to me and my brother, but he also spun us wild yarns about a character of his own invention –  Redpants Cookie.  From what I remember of this young, maroon-chaps-wearing cowboy, he always returned safely home from his adventures to find a glass of milk and a plate of cookies.  (If I ever write a children’s book, this is it, so don’t go stealing my Redpants Cookie!)  What I didn’t realize until his memorial service was that, in addition to me, my brother, and our cousins, he had been Grandpa to his second wife’s grandchildren as well.

Talk about things, don’t bottle them up inside.  My grandfather was an airplane mechanic in the Pacific during World War II.  He saw a lot of stuff, but what really troubled him was taking the returning POWs  off the planes.  Like most of his generation, he didn’t talk about it for years.  In his 90s, however, he would recount in vivid detail the helpless and  emaciated bodies of these human rights victims. “I should have talked about this years ago,” he told me. ” I shouldn’t have kept it inside for so long.”

Don’t postpone joy.  After my grandmother died, he went on an Elderhostel trip to Russia; my step-grandmother was on the same trip.  When they returned, they decided to get married.  They had only known each other for about a month, but at their age (he was 80, she was 70) – they figured, why wait?  They were married for 21 years.

"Father of Waters" statue, complete with the toe to rub for good luck and the stairs my grandpa used to run up when delivering papers

Seek your luck.   As a boy in the late 1910s, he delivered papers in City Hall in Minneapolis.  His job required that he run, carrying a heavy bag of newspapers, up many flights of stairs to the offices.  There is a large marble sculpture, called “Father of Waters” after the nearby Mississippi River. According to legend, rubbing his big toe brings good luck.  My Grandpa Olaf paused every day on his paper route to rub the big toe of the “Father of Waters”.  Later in life, we visited the statue together.  This week, on the 104th anniversary of his birth, I went by myself to City Hall and I rubbed that marble toe.  I thought of my grandpa and all that he taught and me.  And all he continues to teach me.

Celebrating Grandpa Olaf's 100th birthday!