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For many years the Federal Government has been providing free and reduced lunches in public schools for students from low-income families. Today many schools provide breakfast as well. There are political arguments both for and against the government providing these meals. Technically it is known as the National School Lunch Program.  It is more commonly known as the free lunch program. The problem with that name is that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Someone has to pay for it. At first you may think that the only one who pays for it is the taxpayer, but you would be wrong.

I know a bit about the free lunch program because I was on it when I was a student. I don’t know how many kids in my school benefited from the free lunch program, but it always seemed to be just a few of us in my class. The other kids who were in it looked and acted so poor. Was I one of them? Did other kids see me that way?

In elementary school the teacher would call your name at the beginning of the day and you would answer by saying, “brought my lunch,” “buying lunch,” or “free lunch.” It was always hard to say “free lunch” out loud. I usually raised my hand and grunted. Soon the teacher knew who all of us free lunchers were and she would save us the embarrassment of having to say anything out loud.

In high school it was even more embarrassing. You did not want anyone else to know you were on the free lunch program, especially any cute girl you liked. In our high school you paid for your lunch in the cafeteria as the line made its way into the serving area. There was a teacher sitting there at a little desk. She collected the money from the students who paid as they passed by her. She had a list of us free lunchers and we told her our names and she checked our names off of the list. Fortunately she learned my name quickly and just smiled at me as I went by and didn’t say anything or immediately mark my name off of the list. I had a little trick I devised. You could pay an additional ten cents and get an extra carton of milk. Everyday I brought two nickels or a nickel and five pennies. I never used a dime because having more than one coin made it look and sound as if you were dropping more money in the box. Unless you were looking closely it provided the illusion that I was paying for my lunch.

I drank two cartons of milk at lunch everyday in high school. I also had milk at home with my breakfast. I drank a lot of milk. My bones are as thick as bridge girders.

I am grateful for the free lunch program. Over the years I am sure it saved my family a lot of money. I am glad I live in a country where we try to take care of those in need by providing some assistance so that hopefully they can break the cycle of poverty. I believe it is the right thing to do.

But, the lunches are not free. The person who receives them pays too. I paid in shame and a feeling of being a little less than the “brought my lunch” and “buying lunch” crowd. More than once I ducked out of line because I was standing next to a girl I liked and did not want her to know I got a free lunch.

It is easy to say that if it bothered me so much I should have just not taken them. But, I was a kid and I did what people in authority told me to do, even in high school. You will find a lot of poor people are that way.

Fortunately, I had friends and teachers who accepted me and loved me and taught me to believe that I was just as smart and my life was just as valuable as anyone else in our school. Turns out they were right. I didn’t pull myself up by my bootstraps. I didn’t “build it” by myself. My life is a culmination of assistance when I was down, friendships that support me and grace that sustains me. I am grateful for all aspects, from programs to people who have helped me have a shot at life. Not everyone is so fortunate. I don’t mind my taxes helping provide lunches in schools. I have been on both sides of this now. I am happy to be on this side of it.

“There is no such thing as a free lunch,” the old saying goes. Take if from a former free luncher, that’s the truth.

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