What This Free Lunch Taught Me About Our Public Schools

by Elizabeth Yeter
Originally Published: 
pile of food on floor
Courtesy of Elizabeth Yeter

School as we know it is done for the semester. Our governor was one of the first to call it off for the entire state. We’re now venturing into the world of online instruction, which will be the mode of learning for the foreseeable future.

My kids’ teachers cleared out their desks and put all contents into individually marked plastic bags for us to pick up. Workbooks, half-used glue sticks, and even paper airplanes (my son had some explaining to do) all made their way back into our possession. Honestly, since I’d been decluttering the house, I wasn’t thrilled to be adding to the sum total of items on our shelves, but my daughter squealed with delight upon receiving back her collection of scented erasers.

The method of pick up: drive by only. I joined a line of cars that snaked around the block and crawled along slowly. As we approached the front of the school, I could see rows of plastic bags lined up on the sidewalk. Teachers wearing homemade cloth masks approached each car to see if their students were inside. It wasn’t mass confusion, but definitely a slow process.

I was pretty much parked in the line when a group of five teenagers jaywalked, crossing directly in front of my car. Hey kids, why aren’t you practicing social distancing? That thought was quickly followed by another: What are these high schoolers doing at an elementary school?

They each walked up to a stack of crates and pulled out a clear plastic bag. As they came back my way, I could see the contents: milk, sandwich, juice, apple. That’s when I remembered that the school district has been advertising the continuation of breakfast and lunch distribution to students. Every weekday, any student could go to any school participating in the food program and pick up a meal.

I know there’s food insecurity in my city. I know that people really do rely on the school to feed their children. I know that my grocery bill has gone up since the coronavirus closures began. So I don’t know why I was so shocked to see a group of kids using this free lunch program.

I guess I had envisioned high school students at home in their rooms diligently working on their school assignments. In my mind’s image, mom would deliver a BLT on whole wheat bread, cut on a diagonal, and a sliced apple while the student would continue typing away. He’d call out “thanks” over his shoulder and she’d pause at the door to say, “I love you honey.” How adorable.

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And how unrealistic. Seeing these students showed me what many kids are really experiencing with school closed.

And as I inched toward the cafeteria workers, I reflected on how our family has, thus far, been unaffected financially by the coronavirus closures. While I may have briefly freaked out about not having enough toilet paper, I hadn’t for one second had to worry about how to feed my children. I felt guilty that I was now in the same line that many students came through every day to have their basic need for food met. I didn’t want to pick up a meal, but it seemed rather rude and unnecessarily disruptive of their procession to refuse the lunch.

“Just one?” the cafeteria lady asked me. I had only brought my son, so I nodded in assent. I got the feeling, however, that if I had said I needed more than one, she would have willingly supplied it. She turned to the cart, pulled out a bag, and placed it on my passenger seat through the open window. I thanked her but didn’t pay much attention to the bag since I was being heralded to move forward to the material distribution.

“Whoa! That’s the lunch?” my son exclaimed from the backseat. I looked over, expecting to see the small bags that the high schoolers had taken from the milk crates. Not even close. This bag was huge. My son reached into the front seat and grabbed the sack. “Can I eat the apple?” he asked, rustling it open.

After picking up the materials and a brief conversation through the window with my daughter’s teacher, we headed home. I spread the contents of the lunch bag onto the dining room table. This is what it contained: Two milks (one chocolate and one regular), two juices (fruit punch and orange), a frozen slushie, a bag of apple chips, six chicken nuggets, a bag of baby carrots, a pancake and sausage sandwich, a cup of corn, a full sized breakfast pastry, a full sized bean and cheese burrito, and an apple.

Clearly this is not for one child to eat in one sitting. Calorically, this amount of food seems like it could sustain a student for an entire day. And I believe that is the intent. School officials are trying to make sure that during these tough economic times, no child is suffering from hunger. For my family, with its pantry overflowing, this might seem like overkill for lunch, but for those who find themselves jobless, this meal is a welcome gift that just barely takes the edge off of the extreme stress they’re under.

Today, I realized what school really is to so many children. School is consistency. It starts at the same time every day and lets off at the same time every day. It serves you breakfast and lunch no matter how much money you have. It’s full of people who care about you not because they’re paid to, but because they really do like you. And while in these unprecedented times school may look different from how it’s previously been, its proven itself to be a community cornerstone that people can turn to for security and support. And so I say, “Well done, schools.”

A version of this article originally appeared at Resuscitating You.

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