Food reporter/columnist

McDonald’s new straw wrapper: a reminder that a new school year beckons, and that many Americans still have no hope for a higher education. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

As I was sitting in the upstairs dining room of the McDonald’s on New York Avenue NW in Washington, hoping no one spotted me, I pondered the significance of the chain’s latest promotion: Straws slipped into wrappers that resemble No. 2 pencils, apparently still the writing utensil of choice for school children in the age of note-taking apps.

McDonald’s will be distributing 100 million of these straws over the next week — 100 million sharp elbows to the gut of kids across America, reminding them that summer is almost over. The wrappers also promote the company’s Archways to Opportunity program, which provides college and high school tuition assistance for eligible workers. A McDonald’s spokeswoman said the corporation and independent franchisees have awarded more than $14 million in tuition assistance so far.

As a point of reference, McDonald’s made a profit last year of more than $4.6 billion. (You can review the annual reports here.)

Company self-promotion aside, the pencillike wrappers made me think about educational opportunities and how they favor the rich, who can afford the skyrocketing tuition rates. The wrappers also made me wonder how education played into the lives of the people who traipsed in and around this particular McDonald’s on New York Avenue.

Before I even walked into the joint, I was solicited for change by a tall, emaciated woman who stood outside. Her mouth was formed into a permanent pucker, and she looked haunted around the eyes, like so many men and women on our streets. She was surprisingly shy, even in her desperation.

Once inside the McDonald’s, I looked around at the folks in line with me. Two were construction workers, young men in hard hats. One gentleman was wearing a large, billowy Tyvek work suit. He looked like the Stay Puft marshmallow man, if the “Ghostbusters” icon had fallen on hard times. Another woman pulled what appeared to be her life’s possessions through the restaurant in a small, two-wheeled cart. A few tourists and office workers were scattered among the diners.

This is McDonald’s. I don’t think any other restaurant can draw such a cross-section of Americans. The middle class. The poor. The destitute. I’ve seen people in Cadillac SUVs, the windows tinted black as if a celebrity were behind the wheel, roll up to a Mickey D’s drive-thru. Kim Kardashian loves her some hot apple pie.

Both the straw and the wrapper have their assigned duties in the utilitarian feeding space of a McDonald’s. But they also, if you stop and consider them, hint at deeper troubles.

Their duties are clear: The straw will serve as a vacuum tube in which you can inhale your preferred beverage. The wrapper will help recruit new McDonald’s employees — a de facto help-wanted ad — and remind us all that Labor Day weekend is the last gasp of summer fun before fall lumbers into view, holding its lengthy to-do list.

But that same straw is also a reminder of human waste — and the vast environmental damage that these slender tubes, and other plastics, have already caused. And that wrapper designed to look like a No. 2 pencil and holding out the hope of higher education? It’s a reminder that there is a wide gap between those who will walk the impossibly green quads of our college campuses, content about their futures, and those who will live hand-to-mouth in the land of plenty.

I could reasonably guess which McDonald’s customers benefited from a college education, and which ones never even considered one. The hardest part was trying to hold this cold, hard duality in my head without it breaking my heart.

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