My Free School Lunch Horror Story

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image of a typical school lunchAfter reading the story about Rep. Paul Ryan’s false ‘no free school lunch’ story he told at CPAC and the general feeling among conservatives that kids need to work for their free lunches, I wanted to tell my free school lunch horror story. Yes, when I was a kid I had free school lunches and it made me feel so ashamed, but not for the reason you might think.

While growing up my family was on and off public assistance. It was during the 70s and early 80s. Being on public assistance made me eligible for a free lunch at school. It usually consisted of a punch card just like the ones used by kids whose families paid for lunch in advance so unless I told someone, no one would know my card was free to me. That isn’t my horror story.

By the time I got to middle school, our family was doing a little better in that I didn’t qualify for free lunches anymore. One day the principal took me aside and said he knew my family’s poor financial situation and he had a deal for me. He would give me a free lunch each day if I would gather the lunch room trash and take it out to the dumpster.

I thought it was a great deal. Free food and I wouldn’t need to work too hard for it. The trash was all paper, plastic, and foam.

I would have lunch and then when I noticed the five trash bins in the lunch room starting to get full, I would take out the first load then put new bags in the bins. As the close of lunch period grew closer, the amount of collected trash would speed up so I would stand at the bins to empty them as soon as they were full. That’s when the fun would begin.

Kids would laugh at me, make fun of my “job”, harshly judge my worth as a human, and give some choice words about my family and our social status. The kids who didn’t express their contempt directly to me would stare at me and roll their eyes. They would then laugh among the group at their tables.

The ridicule I received was every day at lunch and even outside of the lunch room. The hate sucked out any enthusiasm for the job I was given. A few weeks later I had enough and went to the principal and quit. A free lunch wasn’t nearly enough to put up with the name calling and bullying I was getting trying to do a simple job.

Making children work for their free lunches is the biggest piece of shit talking point conservatives have. They want to have children ridiculed for being poor because in their sick and fetid mind they think it will solve poverty. After all being poor is a choice right?

How about we put these working children in orange jump suits to make it even easier to target them for something they had nothing to do with?

Rep. Ryan and the other assholes who come up with new ways to make poor people feel like shit need to be voted out of office. The sooner the better.


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  • deadtreereader

    I’m certainly not a Republican and don’t necessarily agree with them on this issue. However, my experience with this issue is very different from yours. When I was in elementary school–late 50’s/early 60’s–you must have had to be a lot poorer to get free lunch than you do today, when it seems everyone is getting free lunch.

    At my elementary school, there were always one or two girls who helped the lunch ladies serve the food, and a boy or two who helped with the trash. It never occurred to us to look down on these people. I actually thought the girls helping were important and grown up. I wanted to do the same thing. I told my parents about it and asked why I couldn’t do that. They explained that was a way for people whose parents couldn’t pay to earn their lunch, and that if I had one of those jobs, I”d be keeping someone from earning a lunch.

    As an adult, I have talked to several other women who had the same experience of not even realizing what was going on and envying the working students for their grown up status.

    I do have reservations about how dependent people have become on letting someone else feed their kids. We were poor sometimes, and never well off. My parents were working folk. My dad was a policeman and my mother worked in a poultry plant, doing work some people on various forms of public assistance thought they were too good to do. But they never failed to find a way to provide our own food. (They also limited the size of their family because they had limited earning power.) Sometimes they were both gone to work when I got up, but there was always food left that I could safely fix for myself–cereal, juice or banana, milk, etc. They always paid for my lunch. They never expected that anyone else would feed me. They surely didn’t expect me to bring home a backpack full of food on the weekend.

    I don’t want people to go hungry. I actually volunteer at the local food bank and the commodity distribution. I never go to a grocery without buying something for the pantry. Yet I am astounded at the percentage of people who are letting someone else feed their kids for two meals a day, plus weekends. My parents were poor, yet they figured it out. The raised a garden and preserved food and used their money to shop the specials and store them, rather than smoking and drinking and doing other things they couldn’t afford. All the kids who came to school back then ate. It seems that something has changed in the character of people when so MANY let others feed their children, rather than just doing whatever it takes to get the job done. Letting someone else worry about feeding one’s children has almost become the rule, rather than the exception.

    I’m all for helping people who have done their best and still cannot make it. I’m not for making it easy to not try.

    • http://www.dougberger.net Doug B.

      Thanks for the comments.

      It is good to know that your parents were able to provide for you even if the economy was not supportive. However you express the same issue I have a problem with – people making judgments about poor people based only on your own experiences. Scientific studies show that kids that go hungry do worse at school and more children are coming to school hungry. It isn’t just a choice the parents are making – in many cases it is either give Jimmy three meals a day or maybe not have the lights or heat on.

      It isn’t about “letting someone else feed our kids”. It is about making sure our foundation for the future is taken care of. The last thing a kid needs to worry about is if they will have enough food. It is not a huge burden to provide lunch to all school children both poor and not.

      I never wanted a free lunch even when I didn’t have to work for it but if we go through and connect work with charity then that is the wrong message we are sending to the children. Charity is not suppose to have a price tag for the receiver

      I don’t have a problem with students volunteering for community service but if they are working in a school then they need to be paid. Schools use children so they don’t have to pay an adult to do the same job. That is wrong.

      • deadtreereader

        You didn’t reply to my initial point, before I wandered off on a tangent, as isn’t unusual with me. What is your reaction to the fact that rather than looking down on those who were earning their lunch, my friends and I didn’t even realize that’s why they were doing it? We thought they were grown up and important and wanted to do what they were doing. This is the point that actually caused me to reply, because people today seem to feel there is some stigma attached to the earning. Back then, having something useful and grown up to do impressed others, rather than causing embarrassment.

        Also, no child was missing lunch in those days. Everyone who didn’t buy a lunch either earned one or brought one from home. There was no stigma in a homemade lunch. Quite a few children from comfortable families preferred food from home.

        My parents certainly couldn’t have bought lunch when they were in school, had there been cafeterias in school back then. They usually took leftover breakfast for their lunch. They said most everyone did. Homemade biscuits and sausage from their own pigs. Maybe a tomato or a peach or apple from their own place. Nothing store bought that actually took what little cash they had.

        You bring up an interesting point about thinking the schools were trying to avoid hiring help. If you are right, that is certainly wrong. My feeling is that at my school it was make work to allow children the satisfaction of earning what they got, as it was for such a short part of the day and there was a full staff who worked all day.

        I fully agree that there will always be some children who genuinely need to have a lunch provided. It just seems that their numbers are out of proportion these days. Back in the day, in a blue collar neighborhood, in a school in the less affluent part of town, I didn’t see so much of it, yet everyone ate.

        • http://www.dougberger.net Doug B.

          I don’t think you are wrong that in some cases a kid “working” to help their school was seen as being impressive. Also in middle school I worked as a clerk in the library – but again voluntary help is MUCH different than people working to receive charity. That just doesn’t make any sense.

          Again when I was in school buying your lunch was seen as the popular thing to do. We had people who brought lunches from home and no they weren’t looked down on like kids who got free lunches for being poor.

          Just because you didn’t see children going without meals doesn’t mean that food insecurity isn’t an issue. Even when my family was on welfare I didn’t go without food but I had to worry about getting all the nutrition I needed. The free lunches helped stretch our food budget for the month. The government cheese, honey, and milk also helped but they don’t offer that anymore.

          • deadtreereader

            In my opinion, a return to commodities being staples such as milk, cheese, flour, etc., would be great. Where I volunteer I see a lot of poor quality canned goods and instant potatoes, although meat has been plentiful lately. One problem would be the numbers of people who don’t really cook these days.