There was some repetitive children’s picture book I came across last summer about a small boy fishing off a dock of a very polluted lake.  In every other page, he says, “I wish, I wish, I wish for a fish.”  And then, on the next page, pulls out a boot, a tire, or a tin can.  Finally, on the last page, he pulls out a whopper.  Happy ending.  It’s great for story prediction.  Kids are always pulling for the protagonist, who disappoints each time.  Until the end, and then the therapy session is over.  My favorite part about this particular book is that the young man I read it with was one of those Aspergian precocious readers who read the book to me.  I didn’t have to exert myself.  I just had to keep him from ruining the surprise of the next page by holding it down while he predicted the boy would land the big one on the next page.  Ah, those were the days.

Today, I wished for fish of a different sort.  My preschool center has a “kitchen” similar in some ways to your college dorm kitchen, if you weren’t actually allowed to have a kitchen.  The adults are allowed to use the microwave, the toaster oven (though not at the same time –fuses and such), and the fridge in the staff lounge to preserve and heat our Lean Cuisines, leftover pizzas, sandwiches, soups, and soft pretzels however we choose. 

For the children, questionable comestibles passing as nutritionally balanced meals are trucked in around 11:30, kept warm in a “Hot Box” (no, not like that, you potheads) for nearly an hour, and then served to the children.  The food is supposed to arrive around 160 degrees, and be served to the kids at no less than 140 degrees.  That seems mighty hot to me.  For some reason, whether it’s that my center is last on the route, that they’re using some inferior hot box, that they’re using it incorrectly, or that our thermometer is reading in Celcius (Kelvin would have been funnier, but less accurate), the food has several times arrived not hot enough.  And, because we are equipped with only a fridge and a sink and an industrial sanitizer, we are not allowed to reheat food or cook it in any way.  Worse than a college dorm with a microfridge, actually.  We have been forced to send it back to be — I don’t know — reheated?

Imagine now, the lunch that was to have been served this fateful afternoon: pale foodservice-grade fish filets, army-green foodservice-grade wilted broccoli stalks (with 4-5 florets per class), inconsistently edible potato chunks, and pineapple chunks.  The whole meal spread looks decidedly pale.  Ketchup, what’s that?  I’m thrilled that the nutritionists, or whoever they are, make efforts to get kids to eat real food, instead of “kid food”: ghastly  pink yogurt in a tube, dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets, Lunchables, dubiously named “fruit” snacks, Dora ice cream, Spaghetti-O’s, and Hannah Montana cereal.  But, they could at least make it look appetizing, if not edible.  Though I doubt any vegetable kept warm for an hour would fare well.  And of course, the grown-ups’ party line has to be to present each meal as a gift from the gourmands in foodservice, though we’re all gagging as we serve some of the meals.

Especially the fish.  As I walk through the small corridor leading to the classroom I spend my Monday afternoons in, I can immediately recoil from gag on detect the odor from a fish day.  Imagine my surprise when I was informed lunch would be late because it was already 12:30 and the fish was too cold.  The program director (Head Wolf) was out all day, the adminstrative assistant (She who really runs the show) does not work Mondays, and the lunch lady was freaking out.  We could not make the kids wait for a lunch to come at 1:30, when the children in the afternoon program are only there till 2:30 anyway.  So we send the social worker to Pathmark to buy cheese. 

She bought 1.5 lbs for approximately 55 children.  My sliced cheese comes in squares a little less than 1oz per slice.  16oz per pound.  1.5 pounds = 24 oz.  24 slices’ worth of cheese for 55 children.  Guess we should’ve thought this through better.   The teachers made finger sandwiches with quarters of bread stashed away for such emergencies, and paired them with pineapple chunks.  The six children I supped with demolished every slice of bread and every square inch of cheese.  Some even ate pineapple.  I’m sure the kids in the other classrooms ate similarly. 

The irony is that the fish lunch, being my most abhored hands-down favorite, is picked at by all the children.  Many eat potatoes.  Some nibble on fish if it’s chopped up and disguised with contraband ketchup.  Few eat broccoli.  They probably consumed more calories in their bread and cheese today than they usually do on a fish day.  So before I let myself feel bad for starving the children, I just recall the fish smell, feel the bile rising in my throat, and move on, hoping the next fish day is far, far away.