There’s an interesting article in the NYT about how students who are eligible for free lunches are not biting. Why? Because many schools’ distribution system makes clear who gets free lunch, either by way of separate lines, far more limited food choices, or the issuance of telltale “tickets” or other vouchers.
This isn’t a surprise to me. I grew up eating free lunches, and the stigma is real. Kids are cruel, and they will mock the kids with free and reduced lunch tickets. In our school system, “regular” lunch tickets were orange, reduced tickets green, and free beige. You could tell, just looking at the tickets, who was poor. At one point in elementary school, the kids who had free lunch tickets either got called up separately to the front of the class, or had to go to the principal’s office to get their tickets, even though the teachers sold regular tickets in the class room. They may as well have painted a scarlet P on our foreheads.
But even in junior high and high school, when all the tickets were the same color, and the kids who got subsidized food just got a booklet of tickets for the month, the foods available through tickets were different than those on offer for cash. There were salads and cold cut sandwiches and chips and fruit and juice for a la carte consumption. The ticket line, however, had two entree options and either milk, chocolate milk, or apple juice. And most of the time? The food was disgusting. Hyperprocessed, indifferently cooked, salty but otherwise underseasoned. There was a reason why I ate chicken patties, potato puffs, and chocolate milk every day for lunch for four years. Everything else was gaggeriffic. “Fruit” cocktail? More like cardboard in high fructose corn syrup. Salisbury steak and mashed potatoes? Salty leather and paste. As soon as I could get my work permit, I started working– not just to buy a car, but also so that once or twice a week I could have a salad, or a cheese slice from the pizza truck outside, or a steak bomb from the canteen truck.
Growing up poor sucked for all sorts of reasons, but having your poverty cast in your face every single day at lunch, when you’re trying to socialize with your friends, figure out who you are, and do a little growing up is too much to ask of kids. Sure, their lack of funds affects their ability to socialize in other ways. Poor kids are the ones who never get popcorn or soda at the movies, and who go along to the mall, but never, ever, buy anything while their friends are shopping. They’re the ones who don’t go on expensive field trips, or play sports that require an equipment deposit. But sitting at the lunch table, with kids who’ve been given enough cash to buy a la carte, and kids whose parents could afford the groceries to put together a brown bag lunch? It creates all sorts of conflicts, including one I heard from fellow free lunchers: “I wish my parents loved me enough to not be poor.” Why add the other thought: “The school doesn’t care about kids with no money.”