Free School Lunch :: For Me, It’s Not About the Money

As the kids are heading back to school, I cannot help but be extremely grateful for the free school lunches offered in our state. And it’s not just because I despise making my kids’ lunches, or because it is saving my family some money. No, I am grateful for free lunches for the kids who are experiencing what I did in the school cafeteria — especially in my middle school and high school years.

When I was a child, buying school lunch was simply not an option for my family. Every day, my sisters and I brought our packed lunches to school. Our brown paper sacks were void of things like Fruit by the Foot, Lunchables, and Doritos. Instead, my mother sent us with a simple sandwich on wheat bread and a piece of fruit.

In the end, I am grateful my mother did not pack us junk food. But as a third grader, I really just wanted to fit in.

Once I got to middle school, I was on my own. It was either pack my lunch myself — or no lunch. I get it. My mother was trying to instill some values in me — a sense of independence that I was old enough to pack my own lunch. I agree, I was old enough to physically pack my own lunch. But it wasn’t that simple.

My parents were in a complicated marriage that was deteriorating (they ultimately did divorce when I was in high school). Their focus was on their relationship, and for many years I felt like I should keep quiet about my problems because I did not want to add to the stress in my household. I was a shy child and teen and was not great at advocating for myself when I needed help.  

In my teen years, most school days I did not eat at school at all. I have vague memories of occasionally scrounging for change to buy a bag of chips while in middle school. I have very vivid memories of hiding in the bathroom or just roaming the halls during the lunch hour in high school. It was too awkward and embarrassing to sit at a table and watch everyone eat when I had nothing. With no close friends, no food, and no money to buy lunch, I came to really dread the sound of the lunch bell ringing.

My high school years were heavy, hard, and lonely. It would have been less lonely if I could have waited in the lunch line with my peers, filled my tray with a chocolate milk and the day’s menu items, and sat with my peers to eat and chat. Instead of laughing with friends, my lunchtime memories are of the girls’ bathroom stall graffiti. Lunch was the longest 20 minutes of my day.

Sadly, there are plenty of kids in our schools today who are experiencing exactly what I did. They are in each of our cities and towns. There are more children than you’d imagine who do not have access to food. There are kids, like me, who do not have the self-confidence to say, “I need help.” I fell through the cracks of this imperfect system. There will always be kids who go unnoticed or are left behind.

To me, access to free school meals is not just about saving money. It is about giving every child the chance I did not have. It is about all kids being able to sit down — as equals, if but for 20 minutes — and have a meal with their friends. It seems like something so little. It is not. Free school lunch might truly change the life of a child.

Leah was raised in Greater Boston, where she met her husband in 2006. They moved to North Carolina for a few years before deciding their hearts were still in Massachusetts. Leah is a stay-at-home mom and has three children — boy, girl, boy — born in 2011, 2014, and 2017. Her oldest son in autistic. Children with disabilities — and the families raising them — have a special place in Leah's heart. She loves "The Office," date nights, tacos, U.S. history, and the beach. She enjoys sharing her experiences of motherhood, the good and the difficult, to encourage other moms that they are not alone. Loves: Great food (mostly made by her talented husband), playing with the kids, the beach, date nights, The Pats, The Sox, The B’s, new socks and bras, and American history, and movies. Can’t stand: Cotton balls, weeds, broken crayons, pollen, and vacuuming up Cheerios every half hour.

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