No Such Thing As a Free Lunch: On Food Insecurity in Small-town Maine

“Hunger is a stress we can’t measure.”

Across America in June, school lets out. Kids get jobs, cruise around town, get into trouble, lounge carelessly in backyards until class resumes in the fall. In Rumford and Mexico, Maine, where I grew up, June also signifies hunger.

The poverty level in Maine is increasing at more than twice the rate of neighboring states and eight times the rate as the rest of the nation. One out of five kids in Maine doesn’t have enough to eat. For Rumford and Mexico, four out of five kids suffer from food insecurity, a summer occurrence with no beginning or end date.

Jeanne Lapointe, Food and Nutrition Director for the school district, is tasked to feed all those kids throughout the school year. She and her team feed them all summer, too: at three sites, Monday through Friday, from noon until 12:45 pm. One site serves breakfast, too. The summer program, sponsored by the USDA, is in its sixth year with local organizations like Full Plates and the Oxford Federal Credit Union chipping in.

*

The last time I was home I meet Jeanne. She is a little distracted. Her brother, Randy Brown, age 57, has been moved to a hospice facility because his death is imminent. She keeps checking her phone, her eyes soured red.

Jeanne generally eats three meals a day unlike most of the kids she’s tasked with feeding. For most of them, school meals are their only source of food. “That includes weekends,” Jeanne says as she glances at her phone. “On Fridays kids make as many as eight trips to the self-serve salad bar because that is the only food they will eat until Monday.”

I think of the principal’s rescript I heard after the morning school announcements: Make it a great day! The choice is yours!

“But let’s go have lunch!” she says cheerfully and we walk to the cafeteria.

The cafeteria is like every cafeteria in America with football players on one table, cheerleaders on another. Freaks, geeks, loners, nerds, kiss asses, smarty pants, the beautiful, the homely, the poor, the popular, all arranging themselves strategically around the room as if in a staged play. The clatter of trays and silverware heightens the smell of the steam rising from the various bins of food: the oily fug of pizza, withering vegetables, and today’s main offering, box-made stuffing littered with a generous amount of chicken hiding in a spongy, herby mass that mostly smells like damp oregano. “It goes a long way,” Jeanne says about the chicken.

“On Fridays kids make as many as eight trips to the self-serve salad bar because that is the only food they will eat until Monday.”

Feeding hungry children seems easy but Jeanne and her team of lunch ladies have to puzzle out each week what kids will actually eat. “They don’t drink white milk,” she says as the lunch ladies scoop food onto our trays. “So we provide chocolate milk… these kids need calories and they need calcium. Chocolate milk provides both.” Her chocolate milk push didn’t go over so well with critics questioning the sugar content of chocolate milk without considering the obstacles lunch ladies face.

Jeanne and her team will do pretty much anything to get food in kids’ mouths. They have tried a smoothie “program” where they smuggle healthy, low-sugar nutrients into drinks. Kids like pizza, so they hide vegetables in the sauce. The school has even hosted themed lunches, like on Cinco de Mayo where they served Mexican food and festooned the cafeteria with colorful crepe paper while the music teacher played Mariachi music.

It’s even trickier in the summer. Kids are embarrassed, proud, uncomfortable. Sometimes all three. Jeanne works in concert with the school’s summer programs with the idea that if meals accompany a school-related activity, people are less likely to feel ashamed eating them. They make cheerful signs advertising the meals: “Friends, Fun, & Free Food” with a big cartoon sunshine in the backdrop of smiling cartoon kids.

We find a spot to eat in the center of the room and I look around. The mingling of food and teenage sweat—sour, sweet, heavy, reassuring, emphatic—strangles the air. Dim lights and low ceilings buffer the room’s noise to a soft murmur in a potluck of sounds and smells. A shriek from a girl who jumps out of her chair, then a wave of giggles from the floor.

“Eighty-five percent of our kids are eligible for free lunch,” Jeanne says. “And if that many kids qualify, according to a complicated matrix, everyone gets free lunch.”

“You can tell by the way they dress,” says another educator who joins our table. I look over at a group of boys throwing pens at each other. To me, they look like all teenage kids: a little sloppy, misunderstood, too big or too small for their clothes. Pimply and raw.

“They?” I say a little alarmed.

“The kids who qualify for free lunch,” she says.

There’s a code, she’s implying, in the off-brand sneakers or in the slightly unfresh tee shirts worn on repeat that I don’t notice until she points it out. These distinctions, if observed, create an imaginary line between who’s on the inside and who’s on the outside track. The more fortunate kids, they glide confidently across the linoleum floor as if the very air around them is oiled. Her comment on their differences (no-name clothes, poverty) rather than their sameness (boys, teenagers, all receiving free lunch, all friends) mirrored something I had been seeing everywhere, in classrooms, board rooms, living rooms; even though we are generally alike in our desire to be fed, clothed, housed, loved, we zero in on differences in a dehumanizing not celebratory way—in political parties and at dinner parties—perpetuating a cycle of divisiveness that does nobody any good.

In my mother’s high school yearbook, which I had been flipping through a few hours earlier, “You could tell by the way they dress” wasn’t a determination of difference, it was a specification of sameness, which meant you were part of a tribe in a somewhat positive way. In 1960, the year she graduated, most girls wore short white socks with knee-length skirts and arranged their hair into short wavy pin curls with micro bangs. Boys wore buttoned-up shirts and sometimes ties. Their neat flat tops—apogees of the current moment—drew a horizontal line across the page linking one boy to the next. The boys and girls were connected by what they wore, not shunned for what they did not. Those days seemed more egalitarian, but maybe I’m naive.

I poke around the edges of the beige wad on my plate. It’s been years since I’ve eaten institutional food. When I was in high school, I was picky, eating only things where I could identify each component and my taste buds only allowed a small variety of foods. No hidden agenda and certainly no hidden broccoli. In our cafeteria, we were served fresh bread and homemade meals every day for the insignificant price of 50 cents and I paid it absentmindedly. The bloviating jerks called kids who received free or reduced lunch derisively and un-creatively the “free lunch kids.” And we let them.

Jeanne digs into her meal. “Comfort food,” she says as she sees me eyeballing her plate. “It’s familiar to the kids and it helps us use our commodity items.”

She uses words like “commodity” for chicken, “offerings” for lunch, “barriers” instead of poverty, “nutrients” for food, and “programs” for menus, more codes I’m beginning to unravel, ones that keep me at arm’s length from bothersome things. If we institutionalize the words that describe the food we serve to the hungry or the poor, it’s easier to swallow when we can’t provide full plates.

I take a bite. The chicken and stuffing taste pretty good so I eat it all. Still, I chase it down with a big swallow of water and watch the salad bar empty out.

*

The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) is a meal service “option” for schools in low-income areas and it allows the nation’s poorest schools and districts to serve breakfast and lunch at no cost to all enrolled students without making parents face the burden or humiliation of submitting applications. Figuring the eligibility of a school involves its own special math problem, taking in state poverty guidelines, family size and income, and other social programs available in the area.

Jeanne’s passion for nutrition arises not just out of her dietetic studies at the University of Maine in Farmington, or out of having kids of her own, or feeding her husband while he trains for Ironman competitions. She also understands how the human body can define you—but how you can define it, too.

In the summer of 2012, Jeanne’s bras didn’t fit her well. As a fiftysomething-year-old woman, however, she knew the shifting mechanisms of the female form. Around Thanksgiving, while putting on deodorant, she looked in the mirror and saw an odd dimple in her breast. A month later she was diagnosed with breast cancer. By then, it had infiltrated her lymph nodes. She had a lumpectomy, six rounds of chemo, thirty-seven rounds of radiation. She was prescribed aromatase inhibitors, which she still takes and which contribute to her recently diagnosed osteoporosis. She’s also developed atrial fibrillation and sees a cardiologist in addition to an oncologist.

“Cancer is the gift that keeps on giving,” Jeanne says as she laughs. In fact Jeanne smiles all the time, even when she tells me that one out of five women over the age of fifty get breast cancer nationally, which is the same percentage of kids who are food insecure in Maine. Jeanne doesn’t emotionally connect with the cancer “survivor” narrative. “I just survive,” she says with a laugh.

After lunch, Jeanne and I walk back to her office and in the wide unencumbered carpeted hallway, five students are fanned out on the floor piecing together quilts for an art class project. Four of them, according to statistics, are food deprived.

“We don’t know what will happen out of Washington,” Jeanne whispers after we pass the kids, “but I can tell you there’s a conservative arm—The Heritage Foundation—and our new Department of Education Secretary [Betsy DeVos], who believe parents, not bureaucrats should decide what their children eat. There are many complicated reasons why parents sometimes can’t feed their children. But it happens.”

The Heritage Foundation issued a statement in 2016 claiming school meal debates arise out of federalism and government control, not nutrition. They also complained funding children’s nutrition has doubled since 1990, which from what I’ve seen at this school, is largely positive. Underlying these think tank protests, however, is a conviction that poor children don’t necessarily require free food at all. “Everything the bottom 95 percent can benefit from they oppose,” Jeanne says.

But how can anyone oppose feeding children? My mother and grandmother and before them, my great-grandfather, cooked as if they were fortifying platoons. I adopted their approach to meals, preparing too much for the numbers I’m feeding. So hearing kids don’t have enough food pokes at my deepest fears. The only hungry kids I came across in school were privileged girls in college with weedy appetites who starved themselves for a svelter cause, whereas I ate like a warrior never fathoming such a thing. Food was a basic necessity like water or air or love, so why would someone deprive themselves if they had the means not to?

“Hunger is a stress we can’t measure,” Jeanne says.

Jeanne is wrong. A study done on the 1940 Dutch famine survivors suggests if these kids don’t eat properly now, the physical and emotional traumas of hunger will affect them and their descendants for generations. Also, the CDC’s Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) study showed children who suffer other traumas such as household dysfunction or physical, emotional, or sexual abuse can have serious problems in their adult lives: chronic disease, depression, and even early death and suicide and per the Dutch study, they may hand down those traumas to their kids and grandkids. Those are measurable outcomes.

With hunger, poverty, environmental pollution, opioids, joblessness, stress… how will they or the next generation escape the unrelenting loops they find themselves in? Surprisingly, there are detractors to feeding kids at school for free, but I wonder if those naysayers understand that there really is no such thing as a free lunch. These kids pay mightily every day.

“When you’re food insecure, you live in a whole different way.”

Shamefully, I still catch myself saying I am starving in between my organic potato chips and $4.99 kombuchas. To make light of such a thing when at so many points four out of five children, or one out of five, or any out of five children around me were far hungrier than I?

I hear from Jeanne a week or so after my visit and find out her brother died later in the day I was there, four days before a Spaghetti Supper benefit to help with his medical expenses at $8.00/person, which probably four out of five kids at her school could not afford.

*

Maine Congressman Bruce Poliquin, who ran for reelection in November 2018 for Maine’s 2nd District (which includes Rumford and Mexico), had an answer to the poverty and hunger problem, which often go hand-in-hand: require those applying for SNAP work 20 hours a week, a mandate lifted straight from the pages of The Heritage Foundation’s arguments. Poliquin concluded in an op-ed it’s a “common-sense work requirement” and “The goal should be to help everyone who is able to work to become independent of welfare so they’re not trapped in poverty. You never get ahead while being stuck in government dependency.”

On September 14, 2018, Poliquin attended a high school nighttime football game in Rumford, grinning and glad-handing everyone by the ticket booth in his new red flannel shirt, pressed jeans, and perfectly white, Maine-made New Balance sneakers. After the game started, he circled the track that encompassed the field a few times while his assistants corralled and funneled people, including Jeanne, into more handshakes.

Before the game was over, he headed up the steep, grassy embankment to use the bathroom, which is a medium-sized effort for anyone not in reasonable shape, then he wandered off not to be seen again that night.

I caught up with Jeanne the week after Poliquin’s visit and asked about his political platform and how it affected the kids she feeds.

“Many people don’t even have the ability to walk out and find a job, never mind drive your nonexistent vehicle to that nonexistent job,” she said. “We live in rural Maine where there’s no infrastructure, no buses, no trains. I’m so fortunate, but many people are not. There’s already so many strikes against them out here. Then they have to hope like hell they get a job that pays something! Or what if you had to move last weekend or are hungry? What if you don’t even have a stove? These are just some of the stresses many of our families face. Everyone gets hungry but when you’re food insecure, you live in a whole different way.”

*

Poliquin grew up in Waterville, Maine—his father a teacher, his mother a nurse—and attended Phillip Exeter Academy, then Harvard, both on scholarship. He worked in various businesses in Chicago and New York as an adult until returning to Maine in 1989 eventually living in Georgetown on a multimillion dollar estate outside the District where he served. While earning a lot of money doesn’t disqualify him to represent Maine’s Second District, whatever he knew about underserved populations in Waterville or growing up French Canadian or middle class seems to have escaped his current philosophy.

I had been following his campaign throughout the summer and fall of 2018. A month before the football game, Poliquin also campaigned at Rumford’s paper mill, delivering a meet and greet with the new mill management; the mill had been bought four months prior to his visit. On his Facebook page Poliquin posted photos and wrote of the event:

“Folks at the Rumford Mill work hard and just want a fair shake. This is why our trade deals must be fair and why I’ve fought so hard against bad actors like China… If Mainers are on a level playing field, we can win. Trade must be fair.”

While the good people of Rumford certainly want a “fair shake,” likely they want a figurative one, not a literal one like the ones he so copiously delivered at the Friday night football game and probably at the mill. His “fair shake” talk also did not consider that the mill was recently purchased by ND Paper, a Chinese company. Those “bad actors” he warned the mill about? They owned the place.

Poliquin’s wandering off—the football field or outside his District or outside his awareness—is common among politicians running for office. They show up at your events, buy your local goods, and wear clothes that signify they understand you—but where are they when your kids are looking for their next meal or for a way up and out of poverty? Like a neglectful parent, they are always there when they want something and never there when you need them, persistently legislating what’s on your plate even if they don’t give a shit what you eat as long as it’s what they serve up. And those loops they make around football fields represent the poverty cycle he and other politicians avoid while going around in endless circles.

Bruce Poliquin lost his reelection campaign in 2018 to Jared Golden by a slim margin in Maine’s new ranked-choice voting system, the first of its kind in a U.S. federal election. Poliquin filed a lawsuit requesting a halt in the ranked-choice tally, arguing it was unconstitutional and “exotic,” that he would have won under the old system. He lost that battle, too. He was the first incumbent to lose in the Second District since 1916.

Ciphers of poverty are all around (if we want to look): how someone pays for groceries, the kind of winter jacket someone wears (if they have one), or the hunger paralyzing someone’s ability to work 20 hours a week. Is it so hard for our leaders—or all of us really—to look impoverishment in the eye not just give it a fair (weathered) shake with a double-wide grin and slink out the back door?

__________________________________________

The preceding is from the Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which features excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The latest issue of Freeman’s, a special edition gathered around the theme of power, featuring work by Margaret Atwood, Elif Shafak, Eula Biss, Aleksandar Hemon and Aminatta Forna, among others, is available now.

Kerri Arsenault
Kerri Arsenault
Kerri Arsenault serves on the Board of the National Book Critics Circle and is the Book Review Editor for Orion magazine. She teaches nonfiction in The Master of Arts program in Writing and Oral Traditions at the Graduate Institute in Bethany, CT. Her forthcoming book, What Remains, is about how our landscapes define us and how we define our landscapes, due out from St. Martin's Press, 2020.





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