Often when I refer to a story Grilled Cheese I wrote several years ago, youth workers can relate. They remember the grilled cheese lunches they had with the kids. So do I. Every once in a while I make myself a grilled cheese sandwich, in part because the aroma takes me back to those moments of both happiness and struggle. I remember how much we (kids and staff) all looked forward to those sandwiches and tomato soup after an active summer morning. I also remember arguments and food fights. Most of all though a grilled cheese sandwich just tasted good. So when I get the urge again I make another one.
Someday I want to teach a course called Lunch 101. In my university courses we talk about and/or practice many activities like transitions, bedtimes, kickball, painting, etc., but I have never devoted a whole semester to one of these very important activities. Lunch would be a good place to start I think. During the course we might begin with a role-play then spend our time constructing, deconstructing, and practicing the activity while making connections to readings and other aspects of the work.
After a role-play in which one person was the worker and the rest of us mimicked youth (acting the way we have experienced or think youth act at lunch) we could ask what do we need to conduct a successful lunch? An understanding of the significance of food in human development and how trust and attachment are often rooted in feeding might be where we begin. The worker who learned this would not take food a way or use it as punishment or reward, but rather see it as a vital part of building trust and connections with youth who might have experienced little of either. Taking food away would be the same as taking away development to this worker.
We could also discuss stories youth bring to lunch. For example lunch (or breakfast or dinner for that matter) might not be familiar to some youth, at least not the way it was conducted at the youth center or group home or residential facility. These youth might have had to scrounge up what they could for lunch or dinner - a bottle of pop, or a bag of junk food someplace. Sitting down with others and having manners during what is a very sophisticated social experience might also be foreign to these youth. Lunch at home, if it was held together with other family members, might have been filled with fights or arguments, or absent or angry parents. When the bowl of potatoes was passed the youth might have had to dig in for fear of not having enough to go around.
We could also consider culture, and the related meaning of food. Questions we could ask would be: Is the food being severed and the way it is being served familiar or unfamiliar based on the food, rituals and customs of the youths culture? Is the youth used to eating meat and potatoes, or beans and rice, or pasta, or all of these? How is the meal paced and celebrated or not celebrated in the cultures the youth come from? What does food represent? Is mealtime a spiritual experience? Or has the youth ever had a chance to experience meals the way they are customarily served in his/her and other cultures?
While preparing for lunch, decisions about where to sit and how to pass or not pass the food could be given careful attention. Do we have sit down or cafeteria-style meals? If the latter were chosen people behind the counter serving the food would be seen as playing a significant role. I would encourage sit down meals where workers served the food because I think it is more personal and creates excellent additional opportunities to form attachments and relationships during the meal. We would discuss in detail how a connection was formed as the worker passed and/or served from the bowl, the movement of the arm and smile saying “I am here with youth having this lunch, making sure you are fed.”
As we practiced lunch, pacing would be given special attention. The beginning and ending and in-between parts of lunch as well as the transition to and from it would be seen as significant learning opportunities as would meal planning and preparation - getting and leaving lunch as important as eating together, the fears and/or joys of coming to lunch, which could be loaded with happy or unhappy memories as suggested a moment ago. Making meals together would be seen as a golden opportunity to further connections, skills and relationships for the present and future.
During lunch 101 we might make lunch together, each student and professor could lead making a lunch from his or her culture. Then we would eat together and talk about all the above, practicing as we went along. For several years, I have either gone out to eat or made a meal with the students for our last class together. This seems to help pull everything together and help us transition on to the next meal (class).
I could go on and on of course, making connections with the research and literature in our field as I went along. We might even have a course called Advanced Lunch. But I think you get the point, especially if you work in a program that pays attention to these practice issues that one might argue are the crux of our practice (we used to say if you could get the daily routines down you had 50% of the work mastered), and are often unfortunately missed in many programs and classes today that have forgotten our roots.
I know for example after we talk about lunch in our undergraduate and graduate classes and the students go on to their field placements they either come back discouraged or encouraged by the attention given to feeding and food at their placements. We usually try to eliminate those places that do not get it, and strengthen our list with places that do. Generally if lunch is a good experience so is the field placement. When workers in our continuing education classes who are already working in the field share examples of the attention they pay to meals, we try to weave these examples into our discussions with the undergraduates. On the other hand when workers speak about depriving youth of meals as a policy at their agencies we usually ask, “Have you really considered what you are doing?”
In the discussions it seems we are all having these days with funding agencies about outcomes, I like to say, “Lunch would be a good outcome. If a kid could have a good meal, this would be a very good outcome.” You can imagine the response this gets from the funding sources while at the same time if there is a committed and competent youth worker in the discussion, his or her eyes will light up. Anyway, wouldn’t it be great if we could have more courses and conversations titled Lunch 101?
I’m hungry. Lunch anyone? How about grilled cheese?