Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is set in the South during the 1930s and is narrated by a young girl named Scout Finch. Walter Cunningham is a boy in Scout's first-grade class. He is a quiet, unassuming boy, but everything about him speaks of his poverty.
Walter Cunningham’s face told everybody in the first grade he had hookworms. His absence of shoes told us how he got them. People caught hookworms going barefooted in barnyards and hog wallows. If Walter had owned any shoes he would have worn them the first day of school and then discarded them until mid-winter. He did have on a clean shirt and neatly mended overalls.
When it is time for lunch, Miss Caroline sees that Walter does not have one and she asks him several times if he forgot his lunch. He finally mumbles that he did, so Miss Caroline wants to give him a quarter to buy lunch, assuming he has the means to pay it back. To Walter's credit, he tries not to cause any trouble, but Miss Caroline just does not understand Walter Cunningham's situation. The class knows someone has to explain it to her, and they elect Scout to do it.
Scout tells Miss Caroline that Walter is a Cunningham and assumes that the teacher will know what that means, as everyone else in Maycomb would. Miss Caroline remains clueless, however, so Scout finally has to make her point more clearly.
I thought I had made things sufficiently clear. It was clear enough to the rest of us: Walter Cunningham was sitting there lying his head off. He didn’t forget his lunch, he didn’t have any. He had none today nor would he have any tomorrow or the next day. He had probably never seen three quarters together at the same time in his life....
"The Cunninghams never took anything they can’t pay back—no church baskets and no scrip stamps. They never took anything off of anybody, they get along on what they have. They don’t have much, but they get along on it.”
Scout gets in trouble for this and has to stand in a corner until lunchtime. In the playground, Scout is taking out her frustration on poor Walter until Jem (Scout's brother) arrives and invites Walter to have lunch with the Finch family.
At the table, Walter is polite and carries on an adult conversation with Atticus, Scout's father, about crops and farming; "while Walter piled food on his plate, he and Atticus talked together like two men, to the wonderment of Jem and me."
Walter explains why he has not been able to pass first grade yet.
“Reason I can’t pass the first grade, Mr. Finch, is I’ve had to stay out ever‘ spring an’ help Papa with the choppin‘, but there’s another’n at the house now that’s field size.”
Walter is polite and respectful; he asks if the Finches have any molasses and then proceeds to pour it over everything on his plate, much to Scout's vocal amazement (for which she gets in trouble).
This lunch episode reveals several truths about Walter and his family. First, the Cunninghams will not accept charity and will only accept what they can repay. Second, the Cunningham children, or at least one of them, has to skip school so they can help make the family's living on the farm. Third, Walter may not have passed first grade yet, but he is much more knowledgeable about adult things than Jem and Scout who are quite well educated for their ages. Fourth, Walter probably never gets enough to eat. Finally, Walter's smothering his food in molasses is either a family custom or he never gets to have molasses at home.