Free school lunches and social stigma

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.”


10 thoughts on “Free school lunches and social stigma

  1. Jenn @ Juggling Life

    What a great post. I’ve never understood why it’s necessary to humiliate kids for things beyond their control. Frankly, all of our kids should be offered better food than what is in most schools.

  2. Lefty Lawyer/LawyerChick

    Such a thoughtful and thought-provoking post. It did bring up some long-forgotten memories:

    When I was growing up the lunch tickets were all the same color and there was only 1 hot lunch entree option anyway. (This was back in the day when “hot lunch” was considered per se healthier than a sandwich or salad…!) But if we wanted ice cream it as an additional $0.25. I remember saving my quarters and occasionally buying ice cream for my friends who never seemed to want it. I don’t think I consciously understood the stigma but I guess I did notice it in some way.

  3. Cricket

    What a great post. It is something I was oblivious about, perhaps because we brought our lunches due to us hating the entres.

    It’s sad how anger about this remains. Justifiably so, though.

  4. Sara

    What the hell? Do they really do that? I remember all tickets as the same – just some kids’ parents paid cash to the office once a month, and some didn’t. We never knew who was who. In the same Northern California mentioned. And it was the same shitty shit for everyone.

  5. Al

    While I did not have any of these experiences as a kid, I nieces and nephews who are doing this now. My heart goes out to them now, more than ever! And, to you. But, in some way, you’ve lightened my day. If you (and most of the U.S. middle to lower class) can find a way to get through law school, there’s HOPE for the young ones.

    Our priorities have gone awry!!!

  6. standing still

    This is a fantastic post. Our school has an electronic system, and each kid has a pin number. No tickets, no money in the lunchroom. And, at my son’s precious elementary school that closed (budget cuts, don’t get me started) where the population was 47% reduced and free, every single child got breakfast. No questions asked. Delivered to the classrooms. You didn’t have to eat it, but it was there and if you wanted it, needed it, you had something to eat before you started your day. Our principal and the teachers were VERY conscious of not making a kids economic status visible to others. It’s nobody else’s business.

  7. eleanorstrousers

    I didn’t go through this growing up, but by the time I got to college I was nearly homeless and self-supporting. I remember being humiliated every time the professor would want us all to go to some event or buy extra supplies that cost money. I dropped more classes than I’d like to admit rather than go have the embarrassing “I can’t go to the museum- I can’t afford it” conversation.

    I hope I never forget what it feels like not to have disposable income, so I can help cover it up for others down the road.

  8. Emily

    You’re very right – kids are horribly cruel, and any way in which the system singles them out for being somehow different only adds fuel to the fire.

  9. Dory

    We had “tokens” that were different colors for milk only (for the brownbaggers), full, and free/reduced. How hard would it have been to have only two colors?

    We (my sister and I) would’ve qualified for free lunches, but my mom wouldn’t fill out the paperwork because “it was none of their damn business”. Instead, she robbed peter to pay paul for our lunches.

    My kids get free lunches. I’m going to ask them their observations and feelings on this.

  10. amy

    Unbelievable how stupid people can be sometimes. It is inconceivable that this occurs at all anywhere, much less that it has occurred many times, over many years, to so many kids. Does no one have any common sense? I sometimes wonder if such tactics are not done on purpose to discourage people from utilizing the service.

    And a good reminder too to be mindful that not everyone can easily afford even the littlest “extras” and many hide it well. We don’t always know who is struggling to make ends meet (and we shouldn’t need to know – that is private) but we should never make assumptions.


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