Adventures in School Breakfastland
My first professional job after graduation was as the Education Director of the Midwest Regional Office of the American Friends Service Committee. I’m not sure what facet of education I expected to focus on, but I certainly would not have chosen hunger. But that was the issue on my desk, and as a new and eager employee, I went to work.
In 1966, Congress had passed the federal Child Nutrition Act. The Act required school districts to serve breakfast in all schools where “hunger was a problem,” and provided funds to implement the program. Despite this largess, the program had gained few supporters.
In the mid-70s, hunger was definitely a problem in the Chicago public schools. In a district where almost three-quarters of the students came from low-income families, just over twenty percent of the schools had signed onto the program. While some students from poor families certainly ate breakfast at home, we estimated that as many as 250,000 young children spent the first half of the school day stifling hunger pains, not ready to learn.
The first problem I faced was obtaining a list of schools that served breakfast. The director of School Food Services was adamant: the list was privileged information and would not be shared. A friendly secretary became an unexpected ally.
List in hand, I began meeting with parent groups, principals and teachers from schools with large numbers of low-income students. Progress was slow: few schools were interested.
Months into this effort, I received a phone call from Elvira Jones. Ms. Jones was raising several grandchildren in the Robert Taylor Homes, one of two monstrous, outsized ghetto complexes in the City. Her food stamp dollars didn’t cover the cost of meals for all of her grandchildren and any other relative who happened by. Would I be willing to meet her and some other parents about the free breakfast program? Before I had time to reply, she added, “I’ll meet you downstairs in the courtyard, so you won’t have to walk up.”
The Robert Taylor complex was an urban wasteland: twenty-eight sixteen-story buildings clustered around several stunted courtyards. With elevators perpetually in disrepair, tenants and visitors were forced to make their way through stairwells colonized by drug dealers and derelicts. The surrounding streets were as wretched as the buildings: garbage, empty bottles and needles littered the grounds. Robert Taylor was dangerous to the tenants forced to live there and unquestionably off-limits to white do-gooders like me.
I met Ms. Jones on one of those gray Chicago late winter mornings. The courtyard was bare except for a broken swing set and piles of trash. Metal grates—some with broken and twisted bars—enclosed the balconies circling the courtyard. A few children played ball on one of the upper floors, while several threatening-looking young men hung out in the nearest doorway.
Ms. Jones approached, followed by a posse of five older women. Though this was our first meeting, I recognized her immediately. A tall, broad, dark woman, wearing a heavy coat, a small brown hat, and carrying a large handbag, Mrs. Jones carried herself with authority. “Welcome. There’s a childcare center on the first floor, but it’s full of babies. I thought we could talk out here.”
It took fewer than two minutes for Ms. Jones to bring me up to date. The one time the principal was willing to invite her into his office, he had adamantly refused to consider her plea. “Children should eat breakfast at home with their families; eating together builds strong families,” he had admonished her. After that first visit, the principal would not allow her into his office. After introducing me to the other grandmothers, Ms. Jones announced that it was time to walk to the school so I could talk with the principal.
Beethoven Elementary was adjacent to the Robert Taylor Homes. A one-story, desolate-looking structure with torn window-shades, broken windows and rusted play equipment, Beethoven was the Homes’ neighborhood school.
The principal met us in the hall outside his office. Thrusting out his left arm to prevent us from entering his office, he grabbed my right hand and introduced himself. “Dr. Lubershane.” Aha, I recognized the power of my degree. “Dr. Goddess,” I countered.
That was all it took. Within weeks, the school began serving breakfast. Dry cereal, oatmeal, popcorn, bacon and powdered eggs, watermelon—I don’t know what greeted the youngsters and looking back after years living in health-conscious California, I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t care. I only knew that the children no longer passed their mornings dizzy with hunger.
By the end of my first year of organizing, twenty new schools had joined the program. A respectable number—but by this time I was determined that no child would go hungry on my watch. Hundreds of schools that should have been providing breakfast had still not signed on. So hundreds of thousands of children were still trying to learn while hungry.
It was time to expand the fight. I recruited other organizations: Catholic nuns and priests; Physicians for Social Responsibility; the “milk lady,” a fanatic volunteer committed to ensuring that every student consume a half pint of milk a day; advocates for summer food programs; the anti-food additive folks with their lists of harmful foods and food chemicals; and Jesse Jackson’s PUSH (People United to Serve Humanity), the foremost civil rights organization in the City. Finally, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights brought suit against the School District.
I argued for a mass hunger march down State Street, but cooler heads prevailed. Thus, one Tuesday afternoon, while I sat in the back of the School Board auditorium, I watched a line of speakers—some confident with righteousness and research, others with quavering voices, many holding sheaves of signatures—as they commandeered the podium to urge adoption of the school breakfast program. I remember being most impressed with Jesse who, unlike the other speakers, turned his back on the Board to address the parents in the audience.
Weeks later, at the close of another long Board meeting, I heard the Chair of the School Board announce, “The Board has decided that beginning in the fall of the coming year, all Chicago schools will participate in the School Breakfast Program.” I didn’t walk the four blocks from the meeting to my office as much as float over the traffic and buildings lining my path.
Days later, after the hoopla died down, a friend asked, “What do you want to do now?” Thinking of Dr. Lubershane and Elvira Jones, I didn’t hesitate, “I want to represent parents and students who aren’t heard in the public schools. They need help.” And thus began the Chicago Public Education Project.
The Church I Am That I Am
Though all of us affiliated with the Chicago Public Education Project (CPEP) could speak for the Project, as Director I was often front and center. An outsized sense of righteousness gave me courage to confront principals, the Teachers’ Union, district administrators, School Board members, and the lawyers we had hired to handle the “more difficult” cases.
I met many parents in the course of my years with CPEP. Most of them were black, and lived in the slums of Chicago’s South and West sides. What I found most difficult was speaking at parent meetings. Parent meetings: where my desire to get closer to parents was confronted by the parents’ insistent demand that I appear authoritative and knowledgeable, like a knight charging into battle—flag flying, sword unsheathed.
About two years into the project, Reverend Earnest Jones, the minister from a small, black, storefront church on Chicago’s West Side, asked me to speak at a Sunday service. It was in late March, the tail-end of winter, maybe thirty degrees outside; cold but not bitterly Chicago cold.
The church, I Am That I Am, sat between two dilapidated homes without windows or front doors, on a street of burnt-out buildings. The church was wooden, unpainted; there was no yard, no sidewalk, and when I drove up, no congregation gathering out front.
As soon as I entered the one-room building, I realized two things: the church was unheated which meant that everyone was fully dressed in coats, hats, mufflers, boots, gloves and blankets; and almost every surface was covered with contact paper. Now, I had a sister-in-law who contact-papered Kleenex boxes and light switches, but I Am That I Am put Sue to shame. Everything in the church was covered: the walls, the ceiling, sections of the floor, and the tattered folding chairs where the parishioners sat. These were odds and ends of contact paper, so designs clashed and pieces overlapped. Minister Jones’ pulpit—the sole exception to the clashing patterns—was covered in contact paper with a fake wood pattern.
“Here’s our sister, Judy, come to lead us to the truth. Let’s give a hand to Judy.”
I made my way to the front of the room as the parishioners clapped and welcomed me. And for the next twenty-five minutes, I held the power they gave me to deliver the most impassioned speech on rights and equity that I have ever spoken. “They can’t treat you like that. . . . You have rights. . . . Your children have rights. . . . Your children deserve a future. . . . Together, we can make it happen.” Scattered “Tell it like it is, sister. . . . Go on, sister, tell it. . . . We’re with you, sister,” pushed me to an even greater frenzy. Led by Minister Jones, the parishioners remained standing throughout my entire speech. They stomped (probably partially to ward off the cold), cheered, and clapped. A love fest on a block of broken-down homes and beaten families on Chicago’s West Side.
Perhaps the crowd in the church raised the indoor temperature to sixty degrees. I remember that even after twenty-five minutes of increasingly agitated gesturing on my part, sweat pouring down my face, my fingers were still numb. My years of advocacy had educated me on the defeatism of poor black families; I knew the evil schools could do to children. I had argued against numerous suspensions for trivial offenses, expulsions for insubordination, schools refusing to offer remedial help to seriously retarded students, a kindergartener sexually abused by her teacher, teachers hitting kids and ranting at their parents, and on and on and on. It all came out during my twenty-five minute testimony—their pain and my hope. I wouldn’t accept it for my own kids and I wouldn’t accept it for anybody else’s.
It’s an exaggeration, but not by much, to report that I was a puddle of water when I sat down. Minister Jones and the parishioners gathered around and we hugged and laughed and cried.
It’s also an exaggeration to say that ever after all their children and all the children CPEP served did well in school, were never again mistreated, and went on to live fulfilling lives. I don’t know about their futures, but I doubt it. Not even the Children’s Defense Fund or Jonathan Kozol could create miracles. What I know is that I gave some parents hope and helped some students. I also know that at the church, I Am That I Am, I found my voice, and it had nothing to do with my PhD, and everything to do with my soul.
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