Sunday, February 01, 2009
Cheese Sandwich Debate Borders on the Ridiculous
By Leslie Linthicum
Journal Staff Writer
We come together here today to praise the cheese sandwich, not to bury it.
Heaven knows the humble sandwich — two pieces of bread, a slice of yellow American cheese — has been vilified enough in the past few weeks. It has been called a child abuser, likened to a lunch-line weapon of mass starvation and slapped down as a tool of class warfare.
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The Great Cheese Sandwich Schism arose when the Albuquerque Public Schools looked at its budget and realized that parents were some $140,000 in arrears in paying for their children's school lunches and were on a path to owe $300,000 by the end of 2009.
That's a lot of bread. It's enough, for example, to hire six new teachers or to bring art teachers into 16 schools or to fund a middle school sports program.
Notes were sent home, phone calls made — everything short of siccing a collection agency on the deadbeat parents. Some parents made good on their debts; others signed up for the free federal lunches for which their kids were eligible.
But some parents wouldn't budge or couldn't come up with the cash, and the district placed a cap on how many meals could be carried on credit (10 in elementary, five in middle and two in high school). After that, children were met in the hot lunch line with what the school district called an "alternate meal."
Judging from the reaction, you would have thought APS cafeterias were handing out green bologna on moldy bread in a bag stamped "POOR KID."
They weren't. The alternate lunch was an American cheese sandwich on whole wheat bread, a carton of milk or juice, and carrot sticks or another vegetable or a fruit. All in a brightly covered paper bag.
Community agencies got involved. Foundations weighed in. A task force was formed. Public meetings were held. A cheese sandwich protester arrived dressed as a cheese sandwich. Some quoted Scripture.
I love kids. And I love lunch. But I can't help but think a lot of people have come unhinged. Listen to some of the rhetoric, which falls into two general categories:
Hunger: A cold sandwich with extras is not an adequate meal and will leave a child hungry. The meal is so unappealing that some children will go without lunch.
Shame: Children are robbed of their dignity and humiliated when they are singled out with a different meal. Jail prisoners eat better, and that is something we should all feel shameful about.
May I just interject that we're not talking here about waterboarding. We're talking about a cheese sandwich. When I think about a cheese sandwich, I don't think about starvation and I don't think about shame. I think about dinner. And I think it will probably be delicious.
The cheese sandwich meal in question, according to Mary Swift, who is the APS food and nutrition director, weighs in at between 400 and 500 calories and comes close to meeting the nutritional requirements of the regular school lunch. It falls short in protein, although Swift said some lunch ladies slap on a second piece of cheese.
Curious about just how awful this meal was, I picked one up at Susie Rayos Marmon Elementary School one day last week and I ate it for lunch. The entire thrilling episode was captured on videotape, and I invite you to go to ABQjournal.com and click on the "Leslie Eats a Cheese Sandwich" video to see if I survived the torture.
The whole meal costs APS about 75 cents, in contrast to the $1.25 it costs to serve the regular cafeteria meal. Those regular meals might include spaghetti and meat sauce, or a bean and cheese burrito or a hoagie sandwich. Swift points out the cheese sandwich is probably healthier in terms of its sodium and fat content.
She also points out that if parents haven't paid their school lunch debt, they can pack their kids a lunch from home. Lots of kids do it. And how many of those lunch sacks from home do you think probably carry sandwiches, many of them made with peanut butter and jelly, and many of them made with cheese?
Listen, poverty is real. Hungry children are, too. They deserve our serious attention and heartfelt support. What's really shameful is allowing kids to go hungry in our city, our state and our nation. Vilifying two pieces of bread and a slice of cheese — which is food, the solution to hunger — is way off the point.
Jon Barela, the school board member who has been negotiating a peace treaty in the Cheese Sandwich Wars, and who announced last week that the peace process had broken down and the cheese sandwiches would stay at least for now, says, "I feel comfortable with my conscience."
Barela grew up poor in the Mesilla Valley and fondly remembers eating menudo, another food that's gotten its share of grief. He and his family had cheese sandwiches (grilled) for dinner about two weeks ago.
Mary Swift, who has devoted her career to feeding children, takes being called a child abuser in stride.
"I know the fact that they are getting a cheese sandwich, they are not being starved," she says.
Swift's husband was off doing something else last Saturday and she was left alone for lunch. She fixed herself a cheese sandwich.
UpFront is a daily front-page opinion column. You can reach Leslie at 823-3914 or firstname.lastname@example.org and read all of her columns at www.abqjournal.com/upfront.