Real hunger does not whine like a well-fed child who is not starving between meals. Real hunger cannot shout because it is not used to being heard and answered. Real hunger is wounded, wearing an unmistakable look of longing, desperate for the next meal. Real hunger does not have an ETA on its next meal.
School lunches are not a luxury.
When I read about Betsy DeVos joking that schools should no longer provide free lunch, I began to slowly simmer. I know from personal experience how out of touch Betsy and the conservatives are with real poverty in America. Growing up in Brooklyn, and a latch key kid from an early age, I depended on school lunch for most if not all of my daily nutrition. My mother worked full time, but her secretarial job barely kept the lights on and the rent paid and could not stretch far enough to feed her three girls every day.
Ms. DeVos, have you ever searched through jacket pockets, sofa cushions and old purses in order to find enough change to buy a can of spaghetti and meatballs so you could feed your kids?
Have you ever opened the near-empty pantry and reached for the lone box of cereal only to discover the rats had beaten you to it and were already feasting, so you had to scare them off before having your turn?
Have you ever knocked on a neighbor’s door, your stomach rumbling with hunger, in hope they would invite you in for a meal?
Have you ever watched your single parent come home bone tired from working and felt too worried about their stress to mention your hunger because you knew they were doing their best to provide for you?
Growing up under the poverty line, that was my America.
My mother worked full time, but her secretarial job barely kept the lights on, the rent paid and could not stretch far enough to feed her three girls every day.
Like millions of American children, I went to bed hungry and depended on the meal or two I ate at school for my survival. This reality is lost on our new administration. Instead of supporting our children in crisis, they are bent on punishing them for their parents’ income.
Eating my meals at school without feeling shame about my poverty allowed me to focus on learning and to work towards bettering my life. When you are hungry, it is impossible to focus on anything besides your hunger. These school meals that were provided for me freed my brain and created a more balanced learning environment between me and my wealthier classmates.
In 6th grade, a teacher, hearing the unmistakable sound of my empty stomach rumbling, slipped me his snack ― a small baggie of plain potato chips. Nothing has ever tasted as good or necessary. I have never forgotten that simple kindness; we both knew potato chips were a luxury for me.
The school lunch program affords hungry children their dignity and privacy so that they can -- as I have -- grow up to have children who can take abundance for granted.
This is the kind of hunger that people who have three-meal-a-day lives can ignore, because it does not affect them. While I realize that it’s expensive to continue to feed poor kids, isn’t there a higher penalty for allowing them to go hungry? Doesn’t this new plan conflict with the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty?
School lunches are not a luxury: they are a duty to children. So the next time Betsy or any of her cronies complain about the luxury of the free lunch program, we need to question them about the last time they went to bed hungry because of lack of options. The school lunch program affords hungry children their dignity and privacy so that they can ― as I have ― grow up to have children who can take abundance for granted. Its up to us to do whatever we can to continue programs that aid those too quiet to understand the power of their voices. Children die without food.