No soup for you

Have you seen the news? Poor kids in school districts across the country are getting the cold cheese sandwich treatment. I think I just died inside a little.

The problem is that in the recession, too many of those who qualify for a reduced-cost lunch (as opposed to a fully subsidized free lunch) can’t pay the bill. So the kids who can’t pay are getting yanked out of line and served a simple, cold cheese sandwich for lunch.

It’s an awful reality of these troubled times. The school districts can’t afford to feed the kids but don’t want them to go completely hungy. Speaking as someone who got reduced-cost lunches (and sometimes qualified for free lunches), this really gets to me.

Some Albuquerque parents have tearfully pleaded with school board members to stop singling out their children because they’re poor, while others have flooded talk radio shows thanking the district for imposing a policy that commands parental responsibility.

Oooh, parental responsibility. (sigh) Right. Why didn’t anyone think of that?

Yes, in a better world all parents would make enough money and be fiscally responsible enough to pay all of their bills, including the ones that directly influence the hunger status of their child(ren). But in these hard times there are plenty of good, upright citizens who don’t have two quarters to rub together, let alone the money to pay for necessities like lunch. You know, just because someone is struggling financially doesn’t mean they are bad people. There is no one-to-one relationship between being poor and being a bad parent. Just like being wealthy has nothing to do with whether or not you are a compassionate person. I’m sure there’s a few rotten apples in the bushel — some folks who just aren’t good parents or make poor choices and the like. But I am certain that the majority of parents want the best life possible for their kids. And that includes life-sustaining nourishment.

And who suffers the most in this equation? The children, of course.

I don’t know what it is like now in schools, but back in the Reagan-era it was a tough gig to be a kid on reduced-cost or free lunch. The lunch itself was different and automatically singled you out. Not to mention that you didn’t get the perkier lunches like pizza. It seems like a small thing — a lunch wrapped in a different colored plastic or having a different colored lunch pass or being shunted away from certain parts of the lunch line — but those little inequities, especially to a child, can really add up. You’re asking a lot of a 7-year-old to rationalize why people are making fun of him.

Now, I’m not trying to say that getting the free lunch was a traumatic event in my young life or that I’m scarred forever. And these kids who are getting the cheese sandwiches will, in time, learn to laugh at the little injustices of the world. (Ask me sometime about government cheese.) Maybe the old adage is right, that adversity builds character. But the part that it leaves off is that adversity can also build bitterness and a lack of faith in the goodwill of people.

The thing about being a poor kid on the free lunch is that it puts into stark relief just how dependent you are on your parents and the system. If your parents make mistakes or are bad with money or got laid off or whatever … there you are, the happless victim of your parents’ place in the world. As a kid, there’s absolutely nothing you can do about being poor. And yet, it can be a difficult brand to bear. Kids can be cruel. And as we see from this situation, so can their parents.

There is something really broken here. I don’t have the answers. But my heart goes out to these kids. It’s not their fault and they don’t deserve this.

11 thoughts on “No soup for you

  1. “Parental responsibility.” Because parents don’t care about feeding their kids, so they send them to school hungry. Feh.

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