Yes, there is such thing as a free lunch

Here I am with few takers for a federal free lunch program for low-income college students (the ones who had free lunch in high school), and two federal free lunches I don’t need for my own children just landed in my lap.

For real.

5 lunches a week x 2 kids — approximately 400 lunches a year .

My family recently moved to Philadelphia from a small town in Wisconsin. At the school my kids used to attend, children qualifying for free breakfast or lunch were identified by forms and lined up separately from the other kids to receive the food. Several times a year my son or daughter would remark on this, asking why they stood apart. Sometimes they brought their lunches, and sometimes they bought the school lunch. It was never free.

Now they are attending a school where more than 40% of the students qualify for free or reduced price lunch, and that means that thanks to a recent policy change finally enacted nationwide (the Community Eligibility Provision, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2010) all children in the school (indeed the entire district) get lunch for free at no charge. Including my kids.

My former husband and I have a combined income that puts us in the top few percent nationwide. Many of my neighbors do too. Our children will never qualify for means-tested assistance, and it’s never occurred to me that it would help anyone if they did.

All this, despite the fact that I’m among the most forceful voices supporting both free public higher education and the expansion of the National School Lunch Program to higher education.

I got the news about my kids’ eligibility from a private parent group on Facebook. It arrived while I was on the phone with Wick Sloane of Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, a faculty activist with whom I’m working to address undergraduate food insecurity. We were discussing my latest initiative to support students, which will be announced on Monday. I stopped mid-sentence. My stomach turned. I felt…weird.

Free lunch — for my kids? Cool. Really? What? Why? Should I take it? They liked school lunch in Wisconsin and they aren’t on any particular diets. The time I’ll save not having to pack lunch will be substantial — and wow, no more digging disgusting tupperware containers full of mold from my son’s locker.

But who is paying for this? If it’s me, I’m entirely fine with that — as I know why it’s essential to avoid stigmatizing children by dividing those getting free lunch from those who are not. I understand this policy. I just feel strange benefitting from it. What are the effects of sending a bagged lunch with the kids instead? Will the school lunch kids continue to stand apart, if that’s what the “rest of us” do?

I don’t know. Like I said, I’m new to this. I’m blogging it so as to preserve this moment forever. And because I want your advice. Do you attend a community eligibility school? How are you handling this decision?

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