For $45, my parents could pay for my school lunches for the entire year back in 1957. But who, back in 1957, had that sort of money. It was best to pay by the week. And so, on the first day of first grade, I was given the responsibility of taking in that money and handing it to my teacher.

Good thing that we handed in that money first thing on Monday mornings. A dollar and 25 cents, it was. And as they say, “you get what you pay for.”

What we paid for, I came to discover was rather unimaginative dining. When the government cheese arrived in the big crates, we were given what was written on the menu as “Cheese Slice.” When the heads of lettuce rolled in, we found on our plate something called “Lettuce Wedge.”

Later on, when I was in high school the lunchroom ladies took the cheese and lettuce and a few other vegetables to make us a tossed salad. But when we were in first grade, we had no such luck.

I had never seen such huge English Peas. The ones we had at home were small. Not that I ate the small peas we had at home. I certainly wasn’t going to eat these. They were good for smashing into a napkin. Then you could pretend to sneeze into the napkin and hold it up for proof that you really did have a bad head cold. That was a really neat trick to pull, especially on one of the girls while she was actually trying to eat those English peas.

Sometimes we’d have spinach. Have you ever seen a first grade kid who liked canned spinach. Only sailors capable of sucking up their food through a corncob pipe liked spinach. It didn’t matter to us how many children would have loved to eat our spinach in Ethiopia. We would have sent it to them if we’d known how to mail a letter. Instead, we threw it in the garbage.

We ate a lot of applesauce. It came in big cans. Baby food. But we ate it.

Some things we had were good. The yeast rolls, the pound cake with chocolate sauce. We loved the cake with chocolate sauce – both times we had it that year. We wondered why we couldn’t have more of that cake with chocolate sauce. I guess they didn’t have space for such things in the cupboards – not with all those cans of English peas and applesauce taking up so much of the room.

Sometimes we’d have hot dogs. That was alright, but if we’d had some mustard and ketchup it would have been better. Hamburgers were the same. No mustard or ketchup or anything else on them.

The first Friday we could have cried for joy. The lunchroom ladies were scooping out vanilla ice cream. We devoured it, never minding the aftertaste. Every Friday we had vanilla ice cream. By weeks four and five, we no longer liked the vanilla ice cream. Didn’t they have any chocolate? Or strawberry? Or even some chocolate syrup? But, no, they had apparently used up the chocolate syrup the second time they had served it on the cake.

Every Monday morning all through my years at elementary school, I brought in the $1.25. Eventually prices would go up to $1.50, though I can’t remember when. I do remember that things were better in high school. Those ladies took the cheese and made pizzas. They took the lettuce and made salads. No more Cheese Slice and Lettuce Wedge. No sireee!

One day when I was in high school, we were surprised to see “Fresh Pears” on the Monday menu. “Fresh Pears” were there again on the Tuesday menu. And the Wednesday menu. Also on Thursday’s.

On the Friday menu we did not see “Fresh Pears.” We just saw “Pears.” We were tired of eating them by then, anyway.

Come to think of it we had pears back in elementary school, too. But they came out of big cans, sort of like the applesauce. We didn’t eat them, either. We would have been glad to send them to the school lunchrooms in Ethiopia where our teachers said they would be thrilled to have it.

I suppose it all began with the government with some politician saying, “we must keep down the costs of school lunches.” They kept down the cost. A dollar-twenty-five.” For several years.

But then again like they say, “You get what you pay for.”

Yes, you do — and sometimes you get even less.

G. Richard Hoard was raised in Jefferson and is author of The Missing Boys and other books. You may contact him at grhoard@gmail.com.

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