By LOUISE HUNG
When I was in the 4th grade, we had a hot soup program at my school.
Your parents would pay a little bit of money intermittently, and you’d get a hot bowl of “made from scratch” chicken noodle soup and a salad at lunch a few times a week. At the time, my mom decided to add this “little luxury” as she called them, to our food budget to assuage some of the guilt she felt for not being home for me after school.
My parents both worked long hours, sometimes well into the night, to keep us comfortable, and though I was really a pretty happy kid, my mom was always asking me if I felt “neglected,” and if I “resented” her for not being like the moms who welcomed their kids home with snacks and art projects.
Truth be told, I kind of liked that I basically did whatever I wanted, from the hours of 3:45 to 7pm or whenever. I had a whole secret life that consisted of a television babysitter and imaginary unicorns to ride around on.
But I loved soup days. Instead of the peanut butter and syrup sandwich (still a comfort food of mine), grapes, and a note reminding me to save the plastic bags that the sandwich and grapes came in so we could re-use them the next day, I’d get a hot, salty, treat made that me feel like one of the “normal” kids. You know, the kids who got Ziplock backs they were allowed to throw away.
Anyway, Soup Day rolled around, and I eagerly lined up to get my soup. I got to the front of the line, I was handed my soup and salad, and I happily headed back to my seat to enjoy my bounty.
As I sat down, I glanced up, and noticed the soup lady talking with another lady, and both of them looking at me. Something in me twinged. I put down my spoon.
The soup lady walked over to me.
“Honey, you’re not on the soup list.”
“But my mom paid for it.”
“I think you made a mistake. That’s not your soup, sweetie.”
“But my mom said… ”
“You can’t have soup unless you paid for it, honey.” And the soup lady reached for my soup. The kids around me were all watching—the cool kids with their soup and Ziplock bags.
“But my mom…” The words stuck in my throat.
I felt my face burn, and the tears start to well in my eyes. Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry, I remembering pleading with myself.
As the lady took my soup and salad, I made one more effort, my voice a little too loud, and a little too thick, “But my mom said!” More heads turned my way.
As she walked away with my soup, I remembering fighting the corners of my mouth which threatened to sink down into an ugly crying face. The smell of chicken soup, now nauseating, filled the air, and I felt so embarrassed.
Did the other kids think I was a liar? Did they think I was weird for not having a lunch? Did everybody see what just happened? Would they now make fun of me for crying? How was I going to look normal and keep it together for the remainder of the lunch period?
I pulled my hair in front of my face and pretended to be really interested in the table.
What happened next made me cry even harder.
“Louise…you can have half of my sandwich.”
I glanced up through my hair, and my friend Lauren was offering me triangle of peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
“I don’t want all of these chips, you can have some,” Becca the girl I went on to start a “band” with in 5th grade chirped at my side.
“Oh!” cried Mark, the “nerdy” boy who professed his love for me on track and field day, who I had been avoiding for the past month, “don’t cry Lou-weeeeez! You can have these pretzels!”
Before I knew what was happening, I was surrounded by a cluster of 4th graders offering to give me half a fruit roll up, or even to share their coveted soup. And while the tears were beyond stopping at that point, my 4th grade heart ached with gratitude.
This memory was long buried, almost forgotten, until I read about 30 to 40 elementary school students in Utah whose lunches were taken from them and thrown in the garbage last month, because their parents were behind on their school lunch payments.
Apparently the school, unable to reach those students’ parents regarding unpaid debt on Monday or Tuesday morning, thought it best to punish and humiliate the kids by taking away their food.
They sure showed those parents. Three cheers for a teachable moment.
Now, I don’t for one second equate my relatively small soup incident with what happened to these students. What I do recognize is the pain and embarrassment that these students may have felt upon having their meal, for some maybe their only nutritious meal of the day, removed from them by a person of authority, and trashed.
By taking those lunches (pizza nonetheless!) from those kids, the school district was essentially communicating to them not a lesson on value or responsibility, but a lesson that a few dollars worth of dough, sauce, and cheese were more important than their health and well being. The act of taking that food punished them for a “mistake” those children had no control over making.
I can’t help but remember the basic logic I followed in elementary school: if you were bad you got a time out, you had detention, you GOT YOUR PIZZA TAKEN AWAY. How do you explain a punishment such as this incident to a child?
As State Senator Todd Weiler stated, “To me, this rises to the level of bullying.”
And while it gratifies me that apologies, albeit lame apologies, are being made by the school district, and efforts are being made to insure a situation like this does not happen again, it is even more upsetting to me that this mindset of “NO SUCH THING AS A FREE LUNCH” for school children is so prevalent in America.
Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia has suggested that “poor students should sweep floors in exchange for lunch.”
But one of the things I’ve talked to the secretary of agriculture about: Why don’t you have the kids pay a dime, pay a nickel to instill in them that there is, in fact, no such thing as a free lunch? Or maybe sweep the floor of the cafeteria — and yes, I understand that that would be an administrative problem, and I understand that it would probably lose you money…But think what we would gain as a society in getting people —getting the myth out of their head that there is such a thing as a free lunch.
An administrative problem?
And in New Jersey, if your school lunch account balance gets to zero, or the school mistakenly perceives your account to be at zero, your child can look forward to either having their lunch thrown away, or be corralled into a holding room for other “delinquent” children. “So even in kindergarten—no money can equal no food.”
For my brief time teaching workshops in the lowest income districts of the Los Angeles Unified School District, it came to my attention that there were always a couple kids who went hungry every lunch because of parents who incorrectly filled out paperwork, or school officials being terrified of crossing any sort of red tape. The wellbeing of the child being secondary to the rules set forth by the school district.
So while we send children to school to learn about math, history, and English, we are also teaching them that they are only casualties in the battle between a school district’s budget, and the welfare of the very students that budget is meant to benefit.
If teaching a young person that they are not singular, but are in fact part of a larger community whose wellbeing benefits them, is an important part of the public school experience, how does demonstrating that that community can — and will — fail them, lead to a lesson in responsibility?
Students face so many opportunities for division and prejudice in school—race, sexual orientation, financial status, size—are we now prepared to add one more discriminatory checkmark to the list? Who gets to eat lunch and who doesn’t?
I fear that we are embarking down that path.
I will always be grateful to my classmates for showing me kindness when I was without a lunch. Indeed, the elementary students in Utah showed similar compassion when their classmates lunches were taken from them. However, it is my sincere hope that over something so basic as food, no student should ever have to suffer for such kindness.
Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.