For many mothers of school-aged children, suddenly having to create on-demand, in-the-moment lunches during the summer is a rude awakening after the school year’s relative ease in school-supplied lunch or the mindless morning drop of sandwich/chips/apple/cookie into the lunchbox. Because of the economic diversity of my town, I know that the added complication of having to stop a day in the middle to prepare a meal still pales in complexity to the added stress of not having anything with which to prepare that meal. Some 60% or more of the children in our neighborhood elementary school qualify for free or reduced-price school lunch. When the summer arrives, all of those parents lose a third of their child’s weekday allotment of sustenance.
I am extra aware of the heartbreak of this situation after the summer of my daughter Sammi’s diagnosis of eosinophilic esophagitis. To calm the raging white blood cells in her esophagus, a progressive elimination diet had been prescribed for her. From her already vegetarian diet, we had to remove dairy, soy, egg, nuts, and wheat, and any foods prepared on surfaces that touched those forbidden items. In early July of 2010, I pushed carts through the Whole Foods grocery store, then the local multi-ethnic grocery store, then a smaller health-food store, attempting to put together a palatable and nutritious set of meals for her and us, who would be journeying through it with her so she wouldn’t feel alone.
Here’s how it went: I picked up an item — say, a cracker, labeled “gluten free” and “vegan,” which covered the dairy, egg, and wheat portions of the restrictions. Scanning the ingredient list, I searched for the presence of nuts, quite a common replacement for wheat in many gluten-free products. Finding none, I read even more carefully for soy; since Sammi only had to avoid the protein and not the oil or starch, she could still eat a food that contained soy lecithin or soybean oil. In the first weeks, I would allow myself to get excited if my reading had lasted this long without finding an offender, only to be crushed when, at the end of the ingredient list, I found the poisonous statement that made me shove the box angrily back on the shelf: this product is produced on shared equipment with products containing dairy.
The first week’s grocery excursions cost us over $400, which bought us such strange things as wide variety of gluten-free flours (chickpea, tapioca, brown rice), hemp milk, rice pasta, coconut yogurt. To their odd and unfamiliar ranks I discovered I could add some common, cheap, everyday items that fit our needs and, when I did, I nearly wept with joy despite their chemical makeup being nothing like our previous diet. Post Fruity Pebbles! Betty Crocker Fruit Snacks! Lays Stax Potato Chips! Even so, the price of the diet was staggering, both in direct cost for ingredients and in the time it me took to shop and cook.
One morning about a week into this overwhelming experiment, I found myself near tears trying to imagine a lunch that would be appetizing for my daughters and a child who ate with us three times a week while her mother was busy. Carefully, I spread sunflower seed butter on thin, dense slices of a strange brown bread that had met our criteria. I added fruit in the shape of a face. I spread potato chips — also fancy and unusual — around the edges.
It was the best I could do. My children, having sat through the difficult conversations and understanding the expectations and the experimentation we’d all have to endure over the coming months, gamely picked up their lunch and gave it an exploratory nibble.
The visiting friend, however, was not nearly so accommodating. “Oh,” she said, looking at the plate with a sneer. “My mom should have told you. I only eat white bread.”
I wish I could write here that I was understanding. I wish I could write that I brought her into the kitchen and made her a PB&J on white bread. Unfortunately, there was no food in my kitchen that wasn’t safe for Sammi. I had spent an hour scheming and hoping to build that strange little plate. I lost my temper with that child, telling her she could eat it or go hungry, leaving my children to manage her disappointment and confusion. I walked out of the room, locked myself in the bathoom, and pressed my head into the tiled wall, panting with anger.
Now, years later, I regret my behavior largely because I realize one of the reasons that parent may have left her with us for the day was that she may have been one of those children left without school lunch — and as a result, perhaps without any lunch — in the summer. I think about our astronomical grocery bills during that phase of the diet and wonder what would happen to the children like her if they’d had Sammi’s diagnosis. What on earth would a parent on a limited income do with orders like the ones we were following? I shudder to think of it.
Sammi’s lunch was dairy-free, egg-free, nut-free, soy-free, and wheat-free, but it sure wasn’t cost-free.