Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Poetry: Family Album

My husband wrote this poem in the days when I was going nuts. It was early 2001 and I had just started working at The School. I was intensely affected, sometimes horrified, by what I observed during the daily routine of the school day.

Especially shocked by what the school was providing to students for lunch, I decided to conduct my own survey about their food intake. On three different days I randomly approached students to ask them about their lunches. My research wasn’t totally scientific, but it certainly gave me an idea of just how bad things were.

Three options for students existed – to bring lunch from home (18%), have the free school lunch provided by the cafeteria (14%), or buy food from either the cafeteria or the snack bar (68%). Either because of the stigma attached to getting a free school lunch, or because they preferred a different type of food, lots and lots of kids who couldn't afford to buy lunch from the snack bar would do it anyway. Of those who bought lunch from the school, two-thirds just had soda and fries (or chips) as their midday meal, day after day after day.

These were the snack bar menu choices in the spring of 2001: regular or curly fries (large and small, with or without cheese, chili or jalapenos), fried rice, pepperoni pizza, pizza pocket, hot links sandwich, hot chicken sandwich, hamburger, ham and cheese sandwich, soda (Pepsi, Wild Cherry Pepsi, Dr. Pepper, Squirt, Slice, Mist, Hawaiian Punch, Root Beer, Countrytime Lemonade, Fruitworks, in 12 and 20 oz. sizes), milk (4 oz. carton), bottled water (which is good since most of the water fountains didn‘t work), king sized bags of chips (Cheddar and Sour Cream Ruffles, BBQ and Cheddar Ruffles, Regular and Flamin‘ Hot Cheetos, Spicier Nacho Doritos and Cool Ranch Doritos, and Santa Fe Ranch Potato Chips), four pastry items (Hostess Powdered Donettes, Hostess Cupcakes, Hostess Cinnamon Sweet Rolls, Chocolate Chip Cookies), and eight types of ice cream bars. The students I interviewed spent an average of $2.13 per day. I estimated that annually the students spend $262,160, but the real figures are kept by OUSD Food Service. All I know is that the District relied on the sales of junk food to students in order to supplement its budget.

Not being a writer at the time, but compelled to sound the alert, I ended up writing an article for my local community newspaper about what I had observed. You can find it in the August 2001 issue of the MacArthur Metro ( The national concern about child obesity hadn’t yet hit the front page, but within the next couple of years it would be on everyone’s radar.

Around this time, OUSD was considering to contract with PepsiCo for management of the vending machines in the schools. I was becoming obsessed with the dreadful food that the school was serving to all these low income kids and this looming scenario made it even worse. In my spare time I would measure out grams of granulated sugar equivalent to the sugar present in the soda sold by the school. Then I would pour the sugar into baggies and tape the baggies onto the empty cans or soda bottles.

Finding myself morphing into a lone wolf activist, I took those many baggies of sugar with me to a school board meeting and displayed them to members of the Board of Education during my three minute moment to speak. I implored to them to NOT be complicit with harming the health of Oakland's children. It seemed like a completely logical thing to do.

Then the school board voted on the proposal. Oakland Unified became one of the first school districts in California (and in the country) to ban the sale of soda in the schools.

Of course, an awful lot of sugary drinks and junk food are still sold at Bret Harte and other schools; the District needs to make the profits, see? Although the school is a long way from doing a really good job for its kids, I suppose things are a teeny tiny bit better than they used to be.

The garbage and the seagulls are another story.

by George Higgins

You photograph the cans that overflow
with half-eaten pans of pizza and seagull excrement.
Crumpled cans of Surge and Mountain Dew
and glinting bands of Frito-Lay potato chips,
the standard meal.
You took the discarded fast food bags
and measured out the grams
of sugar, fat, cholesterol on your potter’s scale,
once used for making glaze calculations.
Your project you’ve called it, the photos that you take
of smiling kids beside the rubbish they’re waiting for the District to pick up,
The children stand beside the marks scrawled on the walls:
fuck the bitches, murder, 187, 300s rule,
you label them inside a family album.
They’re like the Cobalt blues coming out of the kiln.
The thugs are running things you say.
The union can’t get around to this
for months and months you say.

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