I Survived a CPS Cafeteria

I have eaten lunch in the CPS—Chicago Public Schools—in each of the last 10 years. Granted, I only ate one meal at the same school in every one of the years between 2000 and 2009. But still, I must be due some sort of military award for courage (or foolishness).

The good news is that I’m still alive.

The even better news is that CPS promises to improve the menu starting in the next school year. Reportedly, healthier choices will be offered and some of the worst options reduced or eliminated. This comes as a consequence of complaints from the students themselves.

But again, the change doesn’t start for several months.

This all means that my friends and I, supporters of the Zeolite Scholarship Fund, will once more go into “the valley of death” of gastronomy that is the Mather High School cafeteria on May 7th. On that date, we will also award a scholarship to a member of this year’s graduating class.

Remember Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s famous poem The Charge of the Light Brigade? Here is a slightly altered version of one stanza, just to give you a “flavor” of what our gustatory experience has been like:

Pizza to the right of them,

Nachos to the left of them,

Pop-Tarts in front of them

Lined-up and waiting;

Assaulted by stench and smell,

Troubled we walked, unwell,

Into the jaws of Death,

Into the mouth of Hell

Reeled the still-starving.

Please understand. My friends and I, all Mather grads from the 1960s, love our old school. We admire the dedicated teachers and administrative personnel and the hardest working of the students. The lunch room is clean, the cafeteria workers are courteous and efficient, and they do the best that can be done with the materials at hand.

The school has been described as a “multi-ethnic stew” by Charles Storch of the Chicago Tribune. Lots of languages, colors, religions, nationalities, accents, and styles of dress. And, somehow, the kids get along well and seem to respect their differences. Some even aspire to great things. We try to figure out whom among those students to place our bets on, giving them money to support a college education that they might not otherwise be able to afford.

But the food supplied to the school—I’m not exaggerating when I say that if you have a pet you love, you’d be hesitant to feed it to him.

It has every quality a good meal should have except for nutrition, taste, color, and texture.

I’m glad to hear that things will improve and look forward to the return of my classmates and I in 2011, when we will get a chance to evaluate the new cuisine.

In the meantime, if you have a child who eats at school anywhere in this country, I have a suggestion.

Go to the school cafeteria. Eat a meal there. And if it isn’t any good, complain. Organize.

Pack him a lunch.

These are our children. This is our posterity.

Our kids deserve better.


Anniversaries are important. We draw attention to the accomplishments, feelings, relationships, and memories that mark the times of our life. And, as it happens, there is an important anniversary coming up, at least for me and a small group of old friends called “The Zeolites.”

We are 10 friends who were students at Chicago’s Mather High School. Now, I suppose, we can best be described as an accidental philanthropic organization. Back in the day, 1963 to be exact, we did two things that would prove to have a much bigger impact on our lives than any of us could have expected: we entered a team in the summer softball league at Mather Park and we promised to meet on the front steps of Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry in 37 years time, the first day of a new century: January 1, 2000, at noon.

When the day itself arrived, eight of the 10 old friends kept that promise, coming from as far away as Seattle, Connecticut, Detroit, and California. A few days later I spoke with Bob Greene, then a writer for the Chicago Tribune, who wrote a column called “The Story Behind the Men on the Museum Steps” on January 10, 2000.

At the time, Greene’s column was widely read in Chicago, and his readership included people at the Northbrook, IL based Culligan Corporation, the people whose advertisements featured the slogan “Hey Culligan Man.” In 1963 we’d actually attempted to get the people at Culligan to sponsor our softball team and buy us t-shirts that said “Culligan Men” since we thought that would be a clever name for our group. Culligan had refused our request in 1963, but upon reading Greene’s column, decided to make it up to us. Not only did they offer to give us the t-shirts we’d asked for 37 years before, they provided us with a $2000 grant which we used as seed money to fund a scholarship at our old high school when it was matched by $250 from each of the eight reunited Zeolites.

Over the past 10 years we have been joined in this philanthropic effort by well over 100 of our former classmates from Mather’s Class of 1964/65 and have given scholarships that total over $100,000.

And so, on May 1, 2009 we will celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Zeolite Scholarship Fund, the 10th time we’ve gone to Mather to give money away to some talented and needy young people. Moreover, it will be the very first time that all eight of the founding members of the scholarship fund will be present at the same ceremony. The occasion has become the focal point for an annual “mini-reunion” of our high school class; and it is enormously satisfying and great fun to reconnect to the people with whom we grew up. To learn more about us, you can view our web site at: http://www.zeolitescholarshipfund.com/

As I said earlier, we didn’t plan anything like this back in 1963. We were just 10 friends who enjoyed each other’s company and thought that a reunion in the distant future sounded like fun. But, I guess it shows that if you are lucky and pull together with your friends, you can make at least a small difference in the world.

Try it and see.