The small brown cake donut taught me how to find joy in an inequitable food system.

By Robin Mosley
July 30, 2020
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Yeji Kim

The Super Donut is a small, brown cake donut wrapped in a translucent film that has its name plastered right on it. It doesn’t look special at first glance, but if you grew up eating them at school, you know magic when you see it. When a Super Donut was warmed right to the edge of no return, it was a blessing that supercharged your day.

My Illinois elementary school was located in one of the few places where you could get a Super Donut, which also included Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, and Michigan. We would eat them in the cafeteria for breakfast as a part of the Illinois Free Lunch and Breakfast Program that mandated free meals to all students who qualified. The program aimed to reduce food insecurity by providing consistent meals to low-income students, but what it often failed to do was make that food appetizing. This made the Super Donut special.

As a young Black child in Chicago, I longed for a bright spot in my otherwise drab breakfast schedule. What I remember most was how much power this little donut had over students in my elementary school. Since Super Donuts weren’t served every day, when they made an appearance on our trays, it would get everyone energized in the cafeteria.

A typical breakfast at what was then known as Myra Bradwell Elementary School consisted of rubbery pancakes, a side of mystery “sausage,” milk, and an always frozen juice drink that you would try to extract liquid from by sucking at your straw until your face turned blue. When we were lucky, the infamous Super Donut—the real breakfast of champions—appeared on our trays, turning the cafeteria into a busy floor of mini stock traders running around trying to make a deal with someone just to pocket an extra.

Asking for someone’s Super Donut always came with a price. Maybe it meant giving up your juice the next day, or swapping your chocolate milk for plain milk—anything to seal the deal. Depending on the student, it could mean giving up another favorite food at a moment’s notice, like BBQ chicken, a popular but infrequent lunch item. But with no risk, there was no reward. So, like many others in my school, I did everything I could to get my hands on that donut. The moment I secured one, I would tear the plastic off and watch the steam rise, inhaling the brown sugar smell. What would follow was an attempt to scarf down all of it at once without burning the roof of my mouth.

The Super Donut taught me a number of early life lessons, the most important being how to find joy within an inequitable food system. It showed me that treating yourself to special foods is a valuable form of self-care. “Spoiling” myself with a specialty item allowed me to enjoy what I couldn’t have—luxury. What's more, Super Donuts became the currency I used to build friendships. They taught me the value of communal eating.

Today, when you look the lunchroom at low-income schools in Chicago, you’ll realize that most CPS students rely on the Illinois Free Lunch and Breakfast Program as their main source of sustenance. It’s been over a decade since I was in elementary school, and that hasn’t changed. But if you look closely enough, maybe you’ll see what I did as a child—students making do with what they have in front of them, and finding joy. It’s this practice that gives us permission to feel joy, even within an inequitable food system—one where people often can’t fathom that low-income students deserve foods that make them feel good.

The Super Donut helped me cope with food insecurity. I’m not sure that I would be the person I am today without the experiences I had eating it in school. It helped me make sense of a world where joy is a precious commodity. And I have a small brown donut to thank.