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Sandra, are you still hungry?

I will never forget Sandra. Her dark brown eyes were shy. Her skin was the color of the coffee my Aunt Lucinda drank with generous amounts of sugar and cream. She had two braids, as did I, but she was tall and thin and I was a bit chubby.

We both traveled to Mary Benton Elementary on buses. Almost all of the kids did. I carried a white vinyl lunch box with the Flintstones on the front. There was white milk in my thermos and on good days, homemade applesauce in Tupperware.

Sandra ate the new “hot” lunches. We didn’t have a cafeteria but had a new refrigerator and oven in the gymnasium. The food came on a truck every morning and each lunch came in two trays: a metal one covered in foil that was reheated in the oven and a plastic tray that was kept chilled.

I tried some of the school lunch offerings, but found that I preferred Mom’s homemade cookies to soggy peaches with a dab of pastry on top, and her homemade cinnamon-laced applesauce made the school’s sweetened, canned version taste bland. The school lunch came with vegetables, too, which Mom knew to administer under her watchful eye and rarely packed. Flintstones tablets and breakfast cereal provided the backup vitamins my picky palate avoided.

On one of the few days that I deigned the school lunch worthy, the vegetable of the day appeared in the cold pack: stewed tomatoes. At some point, I’d been forced to try stewed tomatoes, and while I’m pretty sure I’d tried them warm, there was no doubt in my mind that they’d be at least as vile eaten cold.

I’m not sure if I was alone in my feelings for stewed tomatoes or if it was a group decision that determined the tomatoes to be too gross to eat. I do remember looking over to Sandra’s desk (we ate in our classrooms), where she was eating her tomatoes. Something to the effect of “Yuck! How can you stand to eat those?” came from my mouth.

The reply is ingrained in my memory as though the 30 years that have since passed have disappeared.

Sandra’s big, brown eyes looked over at me. Quietly and simply she said, “Because I’m hungry.”

The memory brings tears to my eyes, and I’m pretty sure I was rendered speechless by the bluntness of her response.

I couldn’t imagine being hungry enough to eat something I truly disliked. No one I knew lived in luxury, but I had never dreamed that children in Wichita went hungry — that happened in China or some other faraway place.

I’d like to say that I did something to help my classmate. I do remember telling my mom how badly I felt, but we weren’t allowed to share our lunches, and I was a “follow the rules” person. My mom had to explain that Sandra came from a neighborhood far across town, where not everyone was as fortunate as us. The school district randomly chose birthdays each year, and if your birthday was chosen, you had to go across town for a year. Sadly, they still do.

Sandra, wherever you are, I hope you are well. I know you are tall and beautiful, and I pray that you no longer go hungry. I wish I had been brave enough to break the rules. You taught me a lesson I’ll never forget.

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