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Eat your greens, drink your milk and push in your chair

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Ideas about the school lunchroom of the past have been mentioned previously in this column, yet details were few and basic. Here is the expanded account of that vital element of elementary education.

First of all, we never used the word “cafeteria”; we knew our eating place as the lunchroom.

The lunchroom in our school was semi-attached to the main building by a narrow breezeway, narrow enough so that we got slightly wet when rain and wind played together.

We children were allowed to talk on the way to the lunchroom; sometimes we girls held hands with our best friend and giggled as we walked. The teacher walked ahead of the class and either held the lunchroom door open or called on a student to have the honor of holding the door.

The kitchen area where the “lunchroom ladies” worked was separated by the serving line where the food was on display and the metal bars where we slid our dark brown plastic trays down the line. At the end of the bars, we picked up our paper napkin, straw, serving utensils and our half-pint of milk.

There were not many food choices each day. We usually had a protein main dish, two vegetables, a piece of fruit or a fruit cup, some kind of bread and, of course, milk. Usually on Friday we had a choice of chicken-noodle or vegetable soup served with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I cannot recall whether we had dessert in the elementary school lunchroom.

Our lunch was served on those beige, heavy-duty plastic plates and in little bowls of the same color. We had real, stainless-steel utensils back then, not flimsy plastic forks and spoons.

My class must have been in the third grade when the new milk cartons came into fashion, you know, the ones that required children to separate two sections at the top and then pull the spout out.

When these new cartons came out, teachers had to teach the young children how to open them, an arduous task, since each child had to get help numerous times before getting the hang of it.

Tables and chairs were smaller than normal for young children, but teachers had larger lunchroom furniture for their comfort. Speaking of chairs, children heard teachers say, “Push your chair under” almost every day. People my age still push their chairs under the table when they get up.

The kitchen was a wondrous place. Some of the lunchroom ladies served the food they had worked all morning to prepare; others cleaned the cooking area or washed all those plastic dishes, stainless-steel utensils and huge pots and pans. There was a lunchroom dishwasher, and at the end of the washing process, the dishes were rinsed with scalding water. I can still see the steam rising in the back of the kitchen area.

I used to love to watch one particular lunchroom lady who dried all those plates by hand by stacking five or six of them, drying the top of one and the bottom of another and then switching them back and forth until the top and bottom of all of them were dry. She could dry plates at lightning speed.

The school lunchroom was a mighty noisy place, with all the dishwashing and drying, the sounds of chairs being pushed under, metal hitting on plastic, the clatter of a plate or fork falling to the floor on occasion, or even the sound a chair falling to the floor with a child squealing afterward.

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