Free lunch ain’t free …. or, what it’s like to be a hungry kid

Last weekend I texted a high school friend to ask, “How much was our lunch in high school?” I noted that I thought it was 80 cents, or maybe it was 60, I wasn’t sure. She wrote back that she had no idea, but recalled getting a tiny salad because we thought we were fat. “I pretended that,” I replied, “but the truth was I rarely had lunch money,” adding, for levity, “Kept me skinny though!”

Levity. Because who wants to make a friend, even 40 years later, feel bad that you didn’t have money to eat?

When I read this paper’s recent editorial about school lunch programs and how free lunches aren’t free—yes, “free” lunch is logically being funded by someone, somewhere—I recalled how seldom I was able to buy lunch at school.

And then there was cheerleading camp. I was 15. I’d made the C squad (the lowest level), and we were required to attend summer camp on the grounds of our high school. My single mom had given me $20 (more than she could spare, truth be told) to cover soft drinks, snacks, and lunch. For five days.

“There was a Pizza Inn right down the street,” I said to my husband, folding The Anderson News and handing it back to him. “They had an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet, and it was only something like $3.99, but I would just order a Coke, lying that I wasn’t hungry or pretending I was on a diet.” I paused. “To this day I can tell you exactly what the Pizza Inn smelled like that week, and how hard it was to joke and smile at a table full of loud, happy girls while watching them eat until they were stuffed.”

I hesitate to tell stories like this. Who cares, I think. And I still don’t want any of those girls, all these years later, to feel sorry for me. How humiliating. I survived. I lived. But that would be to ignore how isolating it feels (and distracting from school work it is) to be the kid who can’t have the same hot lunch everyone else is having. To feel the poverty you can’t control, exposed.

“It’s okay,” our kids on alternative-lunch tell us, “It’s fine,” though I imagine their thought-bubble reads: Sure, grownups-in-charge, I can make do with this nice alternative lunch sandwich while my friends have the hot food I’ve been smelling in the halls since I got here this morning, just please don’t make a big deal, don’t make this any more humiliating than it already is.

The idea of our school district applying for free lunch for all of our kids is an almost-untouchable subject. What would it say about our community, our school, our families? How embarrassing, one mother said to me, we don’t want to be one of “those” districts, to be labeled like that.

I’ve talked to Anderson County parents who say school lunch costs them $150 or $225 or $300 a month, making my little 80 cents a day (a mere $16/month) seem like pennies. How many of our families are budget-strained by costs like this? And, more importantly, how many families would never in a million years admit it if they were?

On Sunday at 11:30 am, I went to our local park by Healing Field. It was 90 degrees. I noted the splash park at the entrance where six children were playing. Six. Our new splash park that, if I recall right, cost roughly half a million dollars.

Ah, I can hear your arguments. The splash park is a whole other budget. What about personal responsibility, don’t have ‘em if you can’t afford ‘em, free lunch ain’t free and all that. We don’t want to be one of “those” districts. Labeled. Humiliated.

The fact I can’t pin down the cost of school lunches, circa 1981, is like having an ear worm. Since age about 9, I’ve obsessed over numbers. I loved the competition inherent in flash cards. When my parents divorced, I considered the $50 a month in child support they often fought over and calculated my net worth to be $12.50 a week. And boy could I right off in my head figure the cost of our groceries, with tax, before chancing a checkout line short of cash.

Humiliation sure is a hard worker.

Home from the splash park, I pull out an old photo album and, sure enough, there I am at 15, posing in the driveway of our old, white farmhouse, rail-thin and smiling in my blue and white cheerleading uniform. Pretending.