Humiliation. Shame. Embarrassment.
These are the emotions I felt deeply during one high school lunch session when a friendly acquaintance asked me, “Why do you always eat a chicken patty?” Stunned for what seemed like an eternity, I eventually blurted out, “I like the taste,” not willing to reveal the true reason. After a subsequent comment or two about the menu for the day, the acquaintance scurried to another nearby table, hoping to squeeze in a few more conversations before the period ended.
I felt a sense of relief that the exchange was ephemeral, likely to be forgotten by the acquaintance. But I would and will never forget it. How could I? The initial sense of relief was quickly subsumed by a visceral fear of how my peers would view me if they knew the real reason. My peers lived in ritzy McMansions and the cozy suburbs and not in a dilapidated, quaint house. I may share the same space with them during the day, but once the bell rang, we would split into our respective environments.
It’s widely known that cafeteria food is not typically the most appetizing. The limited assortment of processed foods often forced students to stick to one or two options, usually on the basis of which offerings were most palatable and would satisfy their hunger. In order to make up for the lackluster meals from their lunch programs, schools sold snacks and drinks at a markup, typically as a source of profit. These snacks were high in demand, with some students even purchasing several items that they would eat in lieu of a meal.
Unfortunately, my options were more limited. I was one of many working-class students who qualified for free and reduced lunch. In fact, the National School Lunch Program services roughly 30 million children each day. Despite the clear utility that free and reduced lunch programs provide to alleviate food insecurity among students, the stigma surrounding it can never fully dissipate in some spaces. Attending a high school in which just roughly ten percent of students qualified for free and reduced lunch — far below the New Jersey state average — the stigma clung to me, enveloped me with its darkness and made me feel ostracized.
Children might not have the robust knowledge or lexicon necessary to describe social class, but some, like myself, are keenly aware that their way of life differs from their peers and is influenced by their family income. Free and reduced lunch is often one of the first areas of shame a student experiences that is strongly associated with social class. First it’s food, then it’s clothing like shoes, then it’s opportunities and then, for many, it extends to college and extracurriculars.
Although I can’t think of another anecdote that is seared into my mind like the one from high school, I do remember some of my thought processes and internal struggles. Trepidation over whether I could muster up enough change to purchase a snack on the occasions I wanted to treat myself. Anxiety over mixing up what I ate each day so no one would grow suspicious of my meal choices. Worry over my peers finding out about my family’s limited income.
Despite the shame and loneliness I often felt from other aspects of my uncertain life, I will always fondly remember the goofy and amiable lunch table gatherings that I partook in as I voraciously consumed burnt, toast-warm chicken patties with stale tater tots. Free and reduced lunch was my comfort food of the past. It served as one of the few sources of stability during my upbringing. Even though my friend groups would change and tension within my family would fluctuate on a regular basis, I could always count on an unremarkable but palatable meal during the day. I may not have been able to reside alongside my peers in garish neighborhoods, or share stories of recent vacations to exquisite resorts, but I was always fed.
Whether it’s government cheese or opening up to someone, there is no shame in seeking and receiving help.
Free and reduced lunch is a long-term investment in society’s future. There is a lot of fuss on school boards about what kids are being taught. I implore others to also look at what kids are eating, if they’re eating at all. School lunch programs are far from perfect, often suffering from questionable nutrition content and uninviting foodstuffs. However, they are the wobbly leg of a table that would falter without its support. You are what you eat, and had I been unable to eat school lunch frequently throughout my upbringing, my lack of nutrients, energy and attention would have likely derailed the trajectory of my future.
Reflecting on the confidence and knowledge with which I am now equipped, maybe I would’ve told the truth rather than skillfully deflecting the question from my high school acquaintance. My dietary budget hasn’t evolved much as I consistently rely on rice and beans for sustenance, which contrasts with our university’s takeout culture. But I am glad that society’s safety net, in the form of free and reduced lunch, was able to help fill my stomach and my heart.
MiC Columnist Gustavo Sacramento can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.