When our electricity cut out, my mother washed the family’s clothes in pots and pans on the gas stove. When the gas, too, expired, we bathed under candlelight using buckets of room-temperature water. But each day when my sisters and I went to public school in Minneapolis, we were guaranteed we would not go hungry.
Between 2005 and 2007, with a family household income of $19,000, we lived below the poverty line, which meant we met the threshold for free school lunches. Each morning, I’d go to school early to ensure that I ate a modest meal before classes began. Breakfast was free for all students, regardless of income, but the students who actually claimed their meals said a lot about the school and the city, bringing into focus the vast disparity in wealth, privilege and economic advantage of its occupants.
The stale lunchroom, yellowed with fluorescent light, was populated with majority Black and brown bodies—Hmong, Latinx, Somali, and African American students, among others. We were the flecks of pepper in the salted hallways, but you wouldn’t know it based on the lunchroom, which was saturated with kids of color. For many of us, school was an asylum, where basic needs were met that home could not provide. And even that required access. Without the privilege of proximity, I would have been one of the many students who received no breakfast at all.
In 2008, when my mother’s three jobs turned to four and her income increased to $27,000, our family was denied free lunches, a reality shared by many whose nascent upward mobility engendered a different type of stress. While Minneapolis Public Schools no longer blocks students of any income stratum from receiving a meal at lunchtime, parents whose income doesn’t qualify their children for “free and reduced lunch” still incur the debt. Furthermore, in the St. Paul Public Schools system, any such debt over $25 restricts a student from collecting more than a cheese sandwich and a carton of milk.
That’s why the news in early March around the legacy of Philando Castile, fatally shot at the hands of Ramsay County Police in Minnesota in 2016, touched me so. Philando Feeds the Children, the foundation started by Pamela Fergus to honor Mr. Castile’s life, paid off the $35,000 in student lunch debt for 1,788 students in every school in the St. Paul Public Schools district. This includes J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School, where Mr. Castile himself worked and where he sometimes paid for the students whose parents couldn’t afford the daily meal.
The news of such successful fundraising is inspiring, and it strikes a personal chord. In a different year, in a different neighborhood, I would have been one of the children who benefited from the legacy of Philando Castile. My mother would have benefited even more, comforted that her children were fed.
As a Black man from the Twin Cities now living in Chicago, I was gravely affected by the death of Mr. Castile. It was frightening to see another Black man, a man not so different from me, killed just miles from my childhood home in Minneapolis, just minutes from the evergreen corners where I rode my bike to Lake Harriet to swim, a few short miles to the same wide boulevards where I walked my dog, studied, played basketball.
The incredible work of Philando Feeds the Children and the many who support it does not and cannot counterbalance the tragic loss of Mr. Castile. Yet it is beautiful to know that his memory is honored by something as substantive and invaluable as the elimination of lunch debt for all St. Paul Public Schools students.
It took me almost a decade to fully recognize the import of that early morning meal and to understand that race and economics are inexorably bound. That a majority white high school like my alma mater performs well not because of the race of its students but because of the resources it’s continually granted. That even at such a school, which now sports its own coffee shop, some children — more often than not, those who are Black and brown — might not eat if not for the meals that came our way courtesy of the system.
As a native Swede reared for eight years in Stockholm, I often imagine what it would mean for the United States if it mimicked Europe’s treatment of its children. All student lunches are free in Sweden, and much more substantive and nutritious, I might add. But more telling than the differentiation in our politics and economics is the contrast in our relative investments in youth and families.
Other countries with the prominence and resources of the United States are more eager to adopt a village mentality, setting differences aside to protect and nurture its children. In the States, partisan divergences and economic avarice mark lines in the sand where none should exist. Some issues, namely those centering on youth, are purely moral. What bright minds might burst into life when properly nourished and prepped to learn, without parameters or qualifications?