When School Lunch Is Your Only Meal

In my school-going days, I was one of the many people on the Free and Reduced Lunch Programme, and shuffled my way through the cafeteria line with the best of them. Fortunately, I rarely had to take advantage of it, because we always had food at home, and there were often leftovers I could pack for lunch; by middle school, I was never eating school lunch unless it was by choice, as for instance on hamburger day, which was a giddy delight of outdoor barbecue funtimes.

Other students didn’t have that choice. It’s not that they advertised it, but I was aware that some of the people I went to school with were only eating at school, and were relying on that for their primary source of nutrition. I suspect I wasn’t the only one who sometimes ‘accidentally’ packed a little extra in my lunch and didn’t mind where it ended up. I didn’t advertise that either, because we have such a culture of shame around accepting assistance, let alone admitting that we need it.

One in six children in the US is at risk of hunger; this despite the fact that we produce vast amounts of food and consider ourselves a wealthy and ‘developed’ nation. I would argue that one of the critical criteria of ‘development’ is a confirmation that all residents of a nation have access to a safe and stable food supply; if people are experiencing hunger and active malnutrition, that means that not everyone is getting what they need. And that is a problem.

As the states cut school funding because of budgetary problems, one thing that’s being affected is the free and reduced lunch programmes used across the US to provide children with access to food at school. Some of that food is not very good, an issue that is also important to discuss, and there’s been an ongoing movement to reform the foods on offer in US schools, to include more fresh fruits and vegetables as well as whole grains, to move away from industrial products. Children, like adults, deserve access to food that tastes good, nourishes them, and is fun to eat.

Limp green beans meet none of those criteria; as a food justice advocate I know puts it, when she proposed bringing fresh peas into the school, she was scoffed at by people who said that young children would never eat raw sugarsnap peas. They have since become one of the most requested menu items, because, as it turns out, young children really like fresh, tasty, fun food. And let’s face it, eating peas can be really, really fun. Her single act of rebellion laid the groundwork for bringing more fresh things into the schools, by proving that yes, children actually do care about what they put in their mouths.

The fact that children are relying on school lunch as a primary source of nutrition is appalling. It’s tough to get statistics on this, because few parents are willing to openly admit that their children experience hunger. Some of this is shame; it’s embarrassing to be in a position where you feel like you have to admit personal failings, and hunger is often positioned as evidence of a personal failing. It is suggested that a ‘better parent’ would be able to provide for children, and wouldn’t be sending them to school hungry, forcing them to scrounge the fruit baskets when the bell rings for a banana to take home.

It’s also fear, because admitting that you cannot care for your children can become grounds for taking them away. Hunger is something that can be solvable with some basic interventions, like connecting parents with resources they can use, and providing those resources in a nonjudgmental fashion; someone who is sending children to school hungry would probably qualify for assistance from the food bank[1. And in fact some food banks don’t set criteria, welcoming in anyone who comes in for assistance, to encourage people to seek help when they’re hungry by eliminating some of the stigma.], for example. That assistance could be as simple as bread and peanut butter for sandwiches to eat at home—while not exactly exciting or fun, peanut butter sandwiches can be made with materials kept at room temperature, don’t require cooking skills, and don’t require a kitchen.

Food banks also carry fresh fruits and vegetables that can be eaten raw or with minimal preparation, and some farmers’ markets participate in food support programs by accepting vouchers from low-income residents. This requires the ability to access the market, of course, but it’s an important step forward, as are measures by community gardens and small farms to get low-income residents into their facilities to connect with their food sources, and get food to take home. The critical combination of nutrition classes and food means that people get provided with tools they can use to prepare meals, and the food they can use to put those tools in action; teaching people about nutrition is useless when they have no food at home, and have no realistic chance of getting it.

There’s no reason children should be going to school hungry in this country, and I am not casting aspersions on parents of hungry children here. I am casting aspersions on a society that still, after all this time, cannot resolve its hunger problem. Politicians have declared war on hunger more times than I can count, and people are still hungry, and people still experience severe complications as a result of chronic malnutrition. That is, quite simply and purely, wrong, ‘developed’ country or no.