When I was seven years old my parents gave me money on a loaded lunch card for school lunches. I loved chicken nugget day. The smell of baking chicken would fill the school halls and I would ask for bathroom breaks just so I could sniff the air right before lunch.
My parents never missed a payment and were diligent in sending me to school with money to refill my card.
They never missed a payment.
Halfway through my second-grade-year, chicken nugget day rolled around and I took my usual private stroll down the hall to the girl’s bathroom to smell the air in silence. After returning to the classroom the lunch bell rang and my class gathered their lunch cards and walked single file to the cafeteria. I gathered my tray and milk together, walked through the line like everyone else and handed my card to the lunch-lady everyone called “Grandma.” She swiped, “Your card is empty, girl.”
Being seven years old and having little to no concept of money I looked up at her and asked her what it meant. “It means your parents didn’t load your card for lunch and you’ll have to give your lunch back.” I became panicked, afraid, and obviously starving. “But what will I eat for lunch then?” I asked cautiously. “You’re gonna have to clean some tables, then you’ll get a peanut butter sandwich with some water.”
“You’re gunna have to clean some tables, then you’ll get a peanut butter sandwich with some water.”
Where’s the nutrition in that?
I watched as “Grandma” took away my tray and dumped it into the garbage. My eyes welled up with tears, and I held back any gasping noises I felt in the back of my throat as she handed me a dirty cloth and told me to wipe the empty spots. With tears streaming down my face I walked from table to table wiping off empty spots with my stomach growling. I didn’t understand why I was being punished or why they were throwing perfectly edible food away. My friends asked me if I was okay and I shook my head as the smell of their food filled my nose.
I finished cleaning tables and walked back over to “Grandma” and handed her my rag. Taking the rag from my hands and tossing it into semi-clear water, she told me to wait on the wall. Another woman came walking out of the kitchen and handed me a dixie cup of water and a dry peanut butter sandwich tossed into a paper tray.
Full of shame, I walked to the table where my friends had gotten up and finished their lunch and sat down alone. As I was choking down my disappointment of a lunch, “Grandma” walks over to me as children file out of the cafeteria and onto the playground, “Here, I forgot to give you this.” Thinking it was some sort of fruit maybe, she stamped my arm, “ATTN PARENTS: Send lunch money.”
She stamped my arm, “ATTN PARENTS: Send lunch money.”
She walked away and I cried again. I tossed my half eaten lunch into the garbage and walked back to my classroom. My teacher was sitting at her desk when she noticed my red nose and puffy eyes. She didn’t ask what was wrong because she already knew by the stamp shamefully placed on my arm. She hugged me as I cried in her arms, feeling the pang of not only hunger but utter shame.
She gave me a granola bar, “I keep snacks in the classroom in case something like this happens. It’s going to be okay.”
Peeling back the wrapper I stared out the window onto the playground where Tacoma rain clouds began to cover the school. The bell rings and the day goes on.
This incident happened in 1996. It’s more than 20 years later and the same thing happens to kids across the country. This practice in school lunchrooms is demeaning and wasteful. As a parent now myself, I know what to do to ensure my child always has a full belly and a warm heart, but what do we do about those who can’t afford lunch?
Don’t let them go through the same shame I and thousands of other kids across the country have gone through. Donate to No Kid Hungry and take up arms with your school district’s cafeteria and lunch policy.