Growing up, my mother decided to go to law school when I was 7 years old. Much of our life changed to make this manageable: we moved in with my grandparents for the first year, I started a brand new school, and we lived within a strict budget.
One aspect of the budgeted life was that I was enrolled within the free/reduced lunch program at my school. Students were to give teachers money every Monday morning and in exchange, we were given punch cards to use in the lunch line during the week. How much money you handed over determined how many hot meals you ate.
Even though I handed over money, it wasn’t the same amount of money as my peers. It was reduced. It wasn’t until we were a few weeks into school that I realized my punch card was different. Almost everyone else had a soft teal lunch card while my card was a blazing hot pink. No one had said anything to me about it, but I felt weird. Different. I started lining up in the back of the line and slowly the other hot pink card kids joined me there.
I knew finances were tight for my family, but it didn’t sit well with me for my classmates to know.
Now I’m a mom and this year I found myself staring at the application to see if my son would qualify for the free/reduced lunch program. It felt horrible to fill it out, like I was setting my son up for ridicule. But, like my mother was when I was in elementary school, I am enrolled back in college and we have to be strict with our finances.
I explained to my son what I was doing, that if we were approved he would not need to pay the same amount as his classmates, and how lucky we would be. I was worried he would feel shame or stress, but instead he was immediately able to see how helpful it would be for us.
When I got the letter in the mail letting us know my son qualified for the free/reduced lunch program I felt both relief and mortification. But sometimes we need help to make it through, and I needed to accept this help.
What I didn’t understand yet was how my son would go through the lunch line. Would he have to have a noticeably different card like the hot pink punch card of my childhood? I was so relieved to discover that every child in my son’s school was given a unique lunch pin number. Parents who were able to pay the full amount for lunch paid the full amount into a billing system. Parents who had children enrolled within the free/reduced lunch program had the value of their program registered in the billing system, whether reduced or free, as applicable.
There were no special codes or indicators or signifiers with the pin numbers. If we are not enrolled in the free/reduced lunch program next year, my son will still have the same pin number.
Finding this out allowed me to release the balloon of shame I had been hanging on to. Truly. I just let go of the ribbon, and let it float away.
Shame is one of the reasons many families don’t even consider applying for free/reduced lunch programs for their children. Like the school of my childhood, many institutions still use methods that flag a child who’s enrolled within the program. And who wants their kid to have a giant red arrow of parental financial issues pointed at them?
I’ve been reading about more and more schools and counties across America who are actively looking for ways to eliminate the stigma of free/reduced lunch. The county of Darlington in South Carolina benefits from something called “Community Eligibility Provision.” Within this program, every child — every single child — gets free breakfast and lunch. Done.
The new program is helping to take away the stigma, says Darlington’s Food Services Director Pam Vaughan:
“It puts everybody on a level playing field. A student that maybe qualified free previously sometimes there was a stigma if nowhere else but in their mind that they were a free student, and now everyone is free. That stigma is no longer there.”
As for why they decided to adopt the program, Darlington superintendent Dr. Eddie Ingram says, “Sometimes we found the kids that really needed the assistance weren’t really getting the assistance.” So far, the program has been a success with 5% more students eating breakfast and 10% more eating lunch.
The Community Eligibility option was included in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.
According to the Food Research and Action Center, starting this school year, “All schools nationwide that meet the 40% identified student threshold will be eligible to participate in this option.” The threshold they are referring to means 40% of the students fall into the low-income or assistance needed bracket. Targeting schools and districts meeting this threshold also means you are probably reaching those families just above qualifying for assistance.
Schools across America are encouraging parents who may need help to apply. Many districts have applications that are completely anonymous. Tim Hall, a superintendent from the Sault area of Michigan, says, “It’s all anonymous. Really, the only one that knows about it is the person making the decision.”
Hall also notes that, like at my son’s school, “There’s no indication in the lunch line as to which students are receiving free or reduced, or who are paying the full fare for lunch.”
With online application sites like Lunch App, which emphasize applying through them is “more confidential than paper,” everything is streamlined. My son’s school district also recommended an online application site, which eliminates any anxiety parents may feel about sending their child back to school with sensitive information.
Do I wish I could afford to pay full price for my son’s lunch? Yes. Of course. So much so. And hopefully soon I will get there. Going back to school is one of the ways for me ensure I will be able to land a steady and well-paying job in the future. I need to stay in school, even if that means we stay on a tight budget to get to the other side.
In the meantime, I am relieved that the stigma I felt about the free/reduced lunch program as a kid is not something my son ever needs to experience.