What is it like to get Free and Reduced Lunch as a white kid?

Imagine you are a 15-year-old white high school student; your mother just got laid off from work, and your dad just got a job after being laid off from a previous one.

What are you to do? Well, you apply for government assistance so that as a student you do not go hungry at lunchtime. Your parents apply for a service called “Free and Reduced Lunches” so their children can get breakfast and lunch for free at school. These services are offered if you are on food stamps.

But you realize that you are of the few kids in a predominantly white upper middle class community with not a lot other races, so it’s unusual that you are using this service at first. How out of place would you feel?

In Santa Clarita, most of the white students can afford lunch, and people assume all of us can. My brother and I were of the 14% of the 2,340 students at Saugus High School getting free and reduced lunches. And of those 14% we were in the 4% that qualified for specifically free lunches. Although it felt unfitting, it was probably more common then we think. There are possibly more cases out there like mine.

In Southern California a lot of students qualify for free and reduced lunches, according to the Divided We Fail study done by UCLA Civil Rights Project.

A table showing the exposure of students who get free or reduced lunches in California. Photo credit: UCLA Civil Rights Project — Divided We Fail.

According to the UCLA Civil Rights Projects this is some statistics they stated, “keeping in mind that 56% of Southern Californian schoolchildren qualified for free or reduced priced lunches, the average white student in the region attended a school where FRL students made up just a third of the population.”

Although, my school does not have a lot of students on free and reduced lunches and I did not see a lot of students on the service, it still does not mean it affects people. Being a student in the recession was hard enough, but adding onto the fact that one of my parents was unemployed and I was already struggling in school, it made my grades suffer. I was not able to pass chemistry, geometry, and a few other core courses because I was more worried about my home life.

I spoke with my former high school counselor, Dianna Rose asking her thoughts on students who live in tougher financial hardships and if it could affect their school work.

“In my opinion, does socioeconomics affect academic performance? Not always, but it certainly can. If a student doesn’t have access to a computer or parents who are working and can’t assist with homework, that is a difference between peers who have those resources,” said Rose. “Of course students can access school computers and school tutoring options, but that is an extra step that some other kids don’t have to take.”

It is so true that if you needed to take an extra step just to make sure you pass classes, you had to go to the free tutoring resources available to students at lunch but not everyone could go. For students like me it was either you eat at lunch, knowing it was your only real meal throughout the day or skip lunch all together and head to the library to type up that paper or go to a study session for algebra. You could not cut corners in high school. Most of the time, I was at the library or meeting with teachers in their classrooms to ask questions on homework.

From my freshmen year of high school up until my senior year of high school, I was on food stamps and got free/reduced school lunches. I was given a few other resources as well because of what my parents weren’t able to afford for my brother and I.

Ms. Rose states that those who qualify for lunch meet one of the following criteria: state directed, reported income (not verified), food stamps, foster care, medicare, migrant and homeless.

We qualified because of being on food stamps and besides getting FRL, I was also able to get discount dance tickets. The William S. Hart School District outlined how to apply for free and reduced lunches for students by going to their website and filling out an application. As well as every new school year when students do registration, parents/guardians are given paperwork to fill out for them as well.

Ms. Rose also explained the services students could get if they were on free or reduced lunches.

“Students on free and reduced lunch can also get other services as well from an ASB card to prom tickets and P.E. clothes. The state of California also discounts their cost to take AP tests,” said Rose. “We use it as a qualifier for other programs like Operation School Bell that gives students the opportunity to get assistance on fall Sunday with school supplies.”

With those discounts and services it at least made school easier to do and get around to have fun with classmates at school events, like Prom.

A lot of people didn’t take me seriously when I said I could not afford to buy new clothes or get a new cell phone. The financial hardships placed on my family almost costed us to lose our home, the cars, and other resources we needed.

Here are some Tweets of what I was feeling like in 2010 and 2011. I used Twitter much like a diary, and I still do in 2016.

For two-three years my family suffered for not being able to provide Christmas presents to family members.
My family had to be taken off food stamps off and on for two years, it was difficult proving to the government we weren’t able to to afford groceries.

I asked my brother, Paul, his thoughts on what it was like for him to be on food stamps, his views differed from mine on the struggles we both faced.

“I really needed the free lunches in junior high. I was able to get Panda Express for free and that was cool,” said Fornaro. “I didn’t care what people thought about it. And I didn’t care.”

He also used free and reduced lunches when he moved on into Saugus, but he said he didn’t need it as much.

“In high school, I didn’t take advantage of the free lunches since Saugus’s food sucked,” said Fornaro. “So I wouldn’t eat there.”

Instead Fornaro got annoyed at the kids that did get free and reduced lunches but only ate the junk food out of it.

“What bothered me was when I did see kids who did get free lunches, they wouldn’t eat the healthy food, they would only get chips and pizza and dump everything else.”

It is interesting that my brother felt differently than I did about the issue, he is two years younger than I am, but we see the world so differently.

Free and reduced lunches really saved my brother and I for the few years we struggled in the recession, my parents did not have to buy extra lunches from grocery shopping nor did they have to give five dollars a day for the cafeteria. It gave us at least five days of the week we were guaranteed a full meal once a day.

I’m hoping the next people who hear about free or reduced lunches they do not judge someone because of it, no matter what or who they look like. We all face struggles and it’s important to understand that.

Transformation from 2009 to 2016. It was a whirlwind of craziness from from the start of my high school career until I got into college. Image credit: My timehop.
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