Shame, School Lunch, and Passing

When I was in sixth grade, my family was eligible for free school lunches. I attended a small country school, without much class diversity, mostly farmers, some without indoor toilets in their homes. Even so, when I gave my lunch ticket to the student appointed to collect them, I noticed and she noticed that there were black X’s on them made with a marker. “Oh, you’re on welfare,” she said, and she told me who else in our class was.

At the time, I was only irked and embarrassed, not grossly humiliated or shamed. But I kept the incident in mind. The next year, seventh graders from all the little elementary schools were bused into town to attend a big, fancy junior high which had a choir, a band, an orchestra, a swimming pool. Everyone went there, kids whose dads worked in the paper mill and kids whose dad owned the paper mill. Clothes, haircuts, brands, overheard conversations all indicated a social class of which I knew nothing. Proud and desperate to compete, to pass as middle class, I refused free lunches and ate a bread and jelly sandwich wrapped in waxed paper every day instead of milk and a nutritious meal (lunches, still cooked in the cafeteria at that time, always featured vegetables, and could lay some claim to nutrition).

In high school, where status was even more important and I knew even more about social class, I usually skipped lunch altogether. At three o’clock, before my bus came, I’d spend some babysitting money on an ice cream sandwich or box of candy from the vending machine.

Recently, when I visited a high school, I heard a parent say, not with distaste or critique, just as a statement of fact, “Practically no one eats in the cafeteria except the free lunch kids,” and I felt a pain in my gut.

It’s so easy to help in the wrong way, to stigmatize, set apart, and humiliate people who are already struggling. I once had a student in a wheelchair who remembered the days when the disabled kids in California were sent to special schools before a new law required their integration. “I felt I was being punished,” she said. All the nutrition in the world, all the special facilities do not make up for the sense of segregation and labeling.

A well-meaning college financial aid office offered all EOPS (Educational Opportunity Program, in other words, economically disadvantaged) students a free backpack full of school supplies. Fall quarter arrived and in came the students. All took the supplies out of the backpack and left it in the office. Why? It had “EOPS” embroidered on the back.

This year when I received all the forms for my daughter’s high school, one was the free lunch form, and on it, I saw a sign of progress: “California Education Code Section 49557(a): Children participating in the National School Lunch Program will not be overtly identified by the use of special tokens, special tickets, special serving lines, separate entrances, separate dining areas or by any other means.” Some wise people put thought into that, and I was grateful. But clearly in a world where everything else is unequal, it is very difficult for public institutions to shield their most vulnerable students from shame and a sense of being second-class.

8 Responses

  1. Lena Rothman
    Lena Rothman

    I’m sorry you had to feel such shame.I blame a society that’s set up to dishonor and shame poor people and we learn to internalize that negativity. The shame should be squarely placed on the shoulders of the wealthy that won’t pay their fair share of taxes or that stop at nothing including murder and war to keep their profits. It angers me.

  2. Deb Habib

    My comments may be slightly different-
    Working with food justice and farm to school movements, and directly with many of our local food service programs in public schools (in my poor and working class community) I see many efforts locally, statewide and nationally on the part of many food service staff and their allies towards getting fresh local food to all kids towards health equity for students of all economic classes. In fact, there is a higher federal reimbursement rate when those who qualify for free and reduced apply, that benefits a district’s lunch program as a whole–so compassionate schools and food service personnel of which there are many find ways to encourage participation so that all students are fed and fed well. Electronic cards used on the lunch line by all students increase confidentiality and reduce stigma by not identifying full, reduced, or free lunch holders. And importantly, we must remember that food service personnel are working class people themselves, and often deeply compassionate about the needs of food insecure and hungry students– doing their best to feed the best food food possible in the midst of some of deep school food infrastructure issues — namely agricultural lobbies that try and dump inferior food into the national school lunch program.

  3. Kathy Modigliani

    Lita Kurth’s story speaks for the daily humiliations of children who are stigmatized for participation in social support programs. Also low-income children who aren’t wearing “cool” clothes or able to participate in school sports or field trips, as school budget cuts transfer these costs to parents and families. Differently abled children who are treated as “other” if not teased and shamed, including those who are “too tall” or “too short” or “too fat” or clumsy, or have crooked teeth, or facial blemishes…. Children who do not or cannot comply with gender stereotypes.

    The anti-bullying movement is gaining moderate support in schools across the country and we should recognize those advocates as class allies.

    I was heartened by CA policy to minimize stigmatization of children who participate in such programs. Having observed such issues in schools for 40+ years, I can testify that we are making slow but sure progress. Three steps forward, two steps back, as we now witness, is forward progress, however tortured. Keep up the good work, Kathy Mo.

    1. Janet McKenna

      Lita Kurth’s story speaks for the daily humiliations of children who are stigmatized for various reasons. I am currently dealing with this exact situation for my 8 year old grandson who is being stigmatized by some of the teachers as well as the students at his school. He isn’t the only one that some of these adults have humiliated. I have enlisted an advocate for my grandson to assist me with the proper handling of this delicate situation. I can not believe that grown professionals are still acting this way the children they are supposed to be helping.

  4. Loren Bliss

    Ms. Kurth’s eloquent prose reminds me of my own less-than-pleasurable youth. Though not from an impoverished family, I was a vindictively unwanted child, and the stigma inflicted by shoddy clothing and all the other evidence of my pariahdom was adjudged — by students and many teachers too — as absolute proof I was a member of the lowest castes in each of the three high schools I attended.

    Two of these were in East Tennessee, where I was shunned as “white trash,” particularly after the hostility of my father and stepmother compelled me to take a publicly humiliating job washing dishes in the cafeteria to pay for my lunches.

    The third high school was in urban Michigan, a year I stayed with my mother and her parents, my presence profoundly unwelcome there too. Though the socioeconomic bigotry was far more subtle in the North, it was no less venomous: I was rejected as “lower class” (again by students and teachers alike) merely because it was necessary for me to work at after-school jobs — never mind one of those jobs, as a copy boy and sports stringer for The Grand Rapids Herald, launched me on my lifetime career as a journalist.

    While I (of course) applaud the efforts of California and other relatively enlightened jurisdictions to minimize obvious caste-identification symbols, this is hardly a solution to the problem, which is spawned by the hierarchal nature of capitalism and the Ayn Rand class malevolence — ubermenschen versus untermenschen — by which capitalism is sustained, and by which it inevitably morphs into fascism and ultimately Nazism.

  5. Lita Kurth

    Wow, I hadn’t read all of these comments. What a beautiful and sad bouquet of responses. Thanks so much for sharing your own and loved ones’ experiences and struggles.
    The sad fact is that, although California has that statute, the high school still merrily segregated students. Those with cash could wait in a separate line and buy just the school lunch items they wanted (just the hamburger or just the fruit cup or just the milk) while free-lunch students are obligated to take even what they don’t want (some of which promptly goes into the trash).
    It’s very hard to enforce these statutes that people fought for.

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