Robert B. Simpson: Hot meals and shame

January 18, 2014 

A school principal in Colorado is suing to get her job back. She was fired, she says, because she demanded that food service personnel stop stamping the hands of economically disadvantaged children who received free or discounted lunches. As experience teaches, the first reports of any incident are often, maybe even usually, not the whole truth, and in this case, sure enough, there seem to be other factors at work besides just the stamping of hands, misguidedly or otherwise. But the case was a reminder of the generations of poor and hungry school children who paid with embarrassment for the free lunches they were given.

I spent 12 years of public school in an old and somewhat threadbare institution. The school laid claim to having been the first public school in the entire nation to offer a hot, and free, lunch program. My own research has failed to substantiate such an extravagant claim, but it seems clear that it must have been one of the first. Teachers, concerned that many of their rural and small town students went without adequate, or any, lunch, began bringing ingredients with them and preparing hot food on the wood stoves that heated the classrooms.

By the time I came along, the wood stoves were gone and food was prepared in a cafeteria. Students from especially poor families qualified for free lunches. I never saw any stamping of hands or any other overt way of identifying these students, but somehow we all knew who they were. I may have envied them their hot meal while I sat at my desk eating my cold and plain fare brought from home in a wrinkled brown paper bag, but I didn't envy them the stigma.

An acquaintance of mine lives in one of the loveliest small cities in the South, a few hours from here. She is attractive, happily married, and lives in a modern, comfortable home. She is a successful writer of mystery novels. But her childhood was spent in poverty, and she still remembers with pain her free school lunches, obtained by presenting a brightly colored, and obvious to all, ticket to the cashier.

In this more modern time, I don't know if many schools still use a system so obvious and discriminatory as colored tickets or such. Computers, mag-strip cards, and even just common sense allow better ways. But somehow we seem always to find a method to stigmatize poverty.

You're poor? Well, it must be your fault. You, or your parents, must be shiftless, or stupid, or in some other way not as good as the rest of us. Or maybe your Christian faith is not strong enough, because everybody knows if you're a really devout Christian, God will reward you with earthly wealth. (It's sometimes called Prosperity Gospel, and yes, it still exists in America.)

The city of Boston is conducting an experimental program that could solve the problem of under-nourished, hungry, poorly performing students, while simultaneously reducing the potential for long-lasting shame and embarrassment for kids from poor families. Free meals will be provided for all students, regardless of family income. The Federal government is underwriting the experiment. Other cities, including Atlanta, are or will be preparing for and implementing similar programs. The benefit in healthier, more teachable students is pretty clear. Reduction of the stigma of poverty is a happy by-product. The opportunity for nay-sayers to cry "Socialism!" is unavoidable.

Some who have studied this program are convinced it will, in the long run, save money. Experts believe tremendous administrative costs of the current hodge-podge of food programs will be reduced drastically. Less paperwork, fewer administrative personnel, less equipment, less office space, etc., etc.

Well, hey, there's our perfect solution. Feeding hungry children may be socialistic, leading them to believe there really is such a thing as a free lunch. Not even having them clean the lunchroom in part payment for their food, as Representative Jack Kingston has suggested, could guarantee they'd not be on the dole for life. But if we can feed them to save a buck? That's the American way.

Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."

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