Seattle's Child

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The lunch man

Illustration by Kathryn Halloway.

The Lunch Man: One person can make all the difference

I was a shy kid and new to his school. He was the school worker who made all the difference

I was a shy one when I entered first grade at Benson Hill Elementary School in Renton. 

I don’t remember the name of the school. It’s been nearly 50 years and those records have long been lost. But I know I didn’t go there long – just that one year. My stepfather was in the military and that meant we moved a lot. 

But I do remember the lunch man. I’ll call him Mr. Park since his name too has been consumed by the fog of years and the 14 different school cafeterias of my childhood. 

He was the lone man in a line of lunch ladies that manned the dishing counter. Every day he stood ready with his ladle, his broad and twinkling smile and a word of encouragement for every child – whether they thought they needed it or not. 

Words of encouragement

“Keep your chin up!” to the boy two trays ahead who ignored him and rushed off.

“Give’n ya fuel to be cool!” to the girl in front of me.

And to me: “You are A-OK.”

He always winked as I secretly handed him my free-lunch card, trying to hide it from other kids. I had overheard my parents fighting about how my mom was embarrassed we were so poor we needed free food. 

“Those kids would starve without the freebies,” my mother had cried. I hold only compassion today. I can’t imagine the struggle she faced trying to keep four children nourished on an enlisted military salary. But by first grade I was already forming the belief that income level equaled one’s worth. I became the ever-embarrassed girl who sat in the last seat at the last table at the back of the cafeteria, trying to become invisible. 

The opposite of invisible

But Mr. Park saw me. 

Every now and then he’d pop out of the lunch line, high-five kids around the large hall and race back to his place in line to the delight of teachers and students alike. He never forgot me in the corner. If I was extra shy and kept my hand down, he’d lift it up, reminding me:

“Happy is a two-way street! I need your encouragement!”

One day, I snuck my card to him under my milk. There was no need to hide it. By then I had figured out that if I was the last in line, nobody would see it. He gave me a knowing look and then reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet. 

“You know what that is,” he asked conspiratorilly, proffering a card. “That’s my free-lunch ticket.” 

So special

My eyes widened in surprise.

“And you know what that means? That means I am so special and so valuable that the whole government of the US of A wants to make sure I have the best food ever.” The three lunch ladies lined up beside him pulled out cards as well, smiling and nodding.

“Looks like they think you are awfully special too,” Mr. Park said. “Be proud!”

They could have pulled their driver’s licenses from their pockets for all I knew. But I beamed all the way to my far-away table. I glowed like a star. I got up and moved a few tables closer to my classmates. 

And thus I made my way through first grade, eating bright-orange mac and cheese, wiggly jello squares, “mystery meat” with gravy, drinking not-quite-cold milk from cartons and inching toward community.

A strange and scary loss

There is one other thing I remember about my first grade in Renton. 

Halfway through the year, our teacher, Mrs. Evans, had a heart attack during a math lesson and died in front of my class.

The room filled with policemen and medics. We students were ushered into the cafeteria. Most of the kids didn’t quite understand what had happened. They were joyful to be out of class. But I was in the front row when Mrs. Evans died and I was devastated. She had been very kind to me.

Hugs, not crayons

The principal gave us coloring pages and crayons and the lunch ladies brought out chocolate pudding. I sat hiccupping in my corner.

Mr. Park came out of the kitchen and made a beeline to me. He put his arm around me and consoled me. The rules on hugging a sad child were looser then. 

“Let it out. You let that out,” he whispered gently. “It will all be A-OK.”

The lunch man still with me

Eventually I stopped crying. A new teacher arrived. The routine returned. Going to lunch with my special ticket to high-five Mr. Park became my favorite part of the day. I am not sure if the school meals then were healthy by today’s standards. I assume the ingredients had too much fat and salt and sugar. I’ll never know if the meat was actually meat. Looking at the Renton School District’s recent menus, I still see the pizza and chicken nuggets, fish sticks and spaghetti I was served, now bolstered by a daily “Fruit and Vegetable Garden Bar” as well as alternative milk choices.

But I do know those meals filled me up and gave me the energy I needed to get through the day until dinner. I was a good student and grew into a healthy adult.

I also know that the lunch man nourished me in ways that continue to benefit and sustain me and my children today.

Read more at Seattle’s Child:

“The Seattle Schools Lunch Revolution”

About the Author

Cheryl Murfin

Cheryl Murfin is managing editor at Seattle's Child. She is also a certified doula, lactation educator for and a certified AWA writing workshop facilitator at