You ever look at something so closely that you can't quite see it at all?
That word that you say over and over again until it loses its meaning?
Sitting in front of the old coffee shop, waiting for a friend you haven't seen in god-knows-how-many-years. Maybe you're early. So early that you'd drink your weight in caffeinated beverages if you went inside.
So you sit in your car, waiting. Perhaps you run through the radio presets. Check your bag. Write a list. Think of all the things you have left to do before Christmas. You check the time. Still too early, but getting closer. Once you've exhausted the entertainments inside the car, you turn your attention outside.
Place seems dead. Not like the old days. How many customers have come through the door? You've not been paying attention. You don't think much of it. Times change, people find new hotspots, trends come and go.
Squinting through the windshield you start reading signs:
“Parking for customers only.”
… with dramatic emphasis.
“Parking .. foooooooor cuuuuuuuustomers owwwwwnnnnnleeeee.”
“For Sale – Best Offer.”
“Oh wait … They moved.”
You read the sign a little more closely, and without the Aussie accent, and head over to the new address … where you find an automatic coffee machine and a few packages of individually-wrapped slabs of marshmallow and puffed rice cereal.
And your friend … looking a little lost, too.
That's a little like the way I felt – lost – reading a piece this week in the New York Times about the unwholesome connection between the nation's schools and the food industry.
“How the Food Industry Eats Your Kid's Lunch” tells the story of how 32 million children in this country – 21 million of them eligible for free or reduced priced meals – feast each day on farm surplus food that, in many cases, began its journey through the elementary canal at the commodities level. It begins its round trip as fresh meat, fruit, milk -- provided free – which is then turned over to for-profit food processors, only to return to the schools' defacto kitchens as nutrient-poor chicken nuggets, potato logs and HFC-laiden fruit drinks.
It's not as if I haven't been reading the lunch menu that comes home monthly with Ittybit. I know the lunch choices in any given week offer two kinds of pizza, two kinds of minced and re-formed chicken substances and the wildcard offering: burger, hotdog or taco.
When I was a kid, walking the school lunch line was a different experience. We had pizza and tator tots on special occasions, it's true. But we also had women dishing out food they'd made from the boxes of greens, sacks of potatoes and trays of whole chickens that waited for their attentions – on a loading dock or walk-in-cooler – each morning.
It seems almost a foreign idea to me that school districts ever provided working kitchens, complete with potato mashers and ricers and hair-netted cooks whose job it was to provide scratch meals for 400 or more children each weekday noon-time.
We've become so specialized, we've outsourced virtually everything.
Someone else can do it better. Cheaper. Faster. More appealing to kids and their picky appetites.
Only, according to the Times article, the savings haven't materialized. Schools may have cut the cost of staffing and preparation, but the fees associated with food processing has made it a wash.
As I sit here, blinking at this new legacy we're doling out like rubbery chicken nuggets, a reality that should have been apparent to me all along finally dawns on me: Even our schools are “For Sale – Best Offer.”