Growing up poor is hard in a lot of ways. From personal experience though, the hardest part might be the social stigmas it carries and the scars they leave behind. From WIC to Food Stamps to Community Meals, each program that helps feed you also hurts your soul a little. For me, it happened more than once while getting a Free School Lunch. It was usually six words spoken by the kids behind me in line. “Why doesn’t he have to pay?” How do you answer that question as an eight-year-old?

Thankfully, most students no longer have to face that question. Sales systems now used by schools only require a student’s ID number to access his or her account. No cash is exchanged, and this number shields all transaction details. It is a blessing for countless children. Recently though, covid has created new opportunities for old stigmas to resurface.

We have all seen the meal Pick Up programs instituted by school systems in the wake of the covid crisis. And, although they can make some short-sighted assumptions (mom owns a car, grandma can leave work at 1:00 to get in line, dad isn’t too drunk to get off the couch, etc.) most have had admirable success in getting meals to kids that need them. Over the months though, as the initial do-gooder fanfare and kumbaya’s faded, but the actual hard work remained, some programs have worn thin with their altruism and developed cynical sides as well.

We are familiar with the term PPP, the program used by small businesses to keep afloat during this crisis. Unfortunately, relative to Pick Up programs, the acronym has, for some, taken on a second, condescending meaning. In this context, PPP refers to the “Poor People Parade”. And Pick Up programs are exactly that, a parade, watched by your gym teacher as he waves your car forward, your math teacher as she puts the meals in your trunk, and the PTA mom as she checks your name off the list. Thus, instead of just the kid behind you in the lunch line recognizing your poverty, the Pick-Up line puts it up for full public display.

So please keep in mind, every free meal does come with a price. If you are ever tempted to ask “Why doesn’t he have to pay”, please understand that he is paying. Just, instead of money, he is trading in the only coins he has, his pride and sense of self-worth.

About the author

Thomas Lane is an entrepreneur leading the charge in innovation for how we feed children and seniors in need, who has supported the USDA meal program for over 15 years. To reach Thomas for interviews, please email [email protected].