by Kellen Squire
Buried in the avalanche of bad news recently was a story you may have missed: the US is quietly ending funding for free school lunches and summer meals programs at the end of June, affecting millions of kids nationally.
That hits me hard. The entire reason I’m running for office today is because once upon a time, I was told by a politician, very seriously, that “School lunch is a waste of money.”
Hearing that broke something inside me. It showed me that, if I wanted to effect positive change for the people I cared about, I had to be ready to fight for it myself. And so I did exactly that…
… twenty years ago, when I was seventeen years old, and a senior in high school.
This might be incredible to hear, but in 2002, in the United States of America, there were still school districts which had no school lunch available – at any grade, at any school in the district. I should know – mine was one of them, in the working class hamlet of Manitowoc, Wisconsin.
Everyone was expected to be able to pack and bring their own lunch; they even let the high schoolers have an “open campus” lunch, where you were allowed to leave campus and seek food on your own. But no hot lunch. Not for anyone.
When my family moved to Manitowoc in 6th grade, on my first day of school, I got sent in with a few dollars so I could buy lunch, and a check from my parents to set up a lunch account for me. My mother was called almost immediately by the folks in the office, and I can still hear the incredulity in my mom’s voice over the phone just a clear now as it was then. When she had done all of the enrollment paperwork, nobody had ever bothered to explain to her that there was no school lunch available.
This was perplexing to the staff. Why would anyone just assume a school had lunch available for students? I remember being very confused as they rolled their eyes at the supposed presumption. “The nerve of some people!”
Other than that day, though, I never had an issue with that arrangement. Our family was working class, but we could afford to send a lunch to school with me every day. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I finally noticed the true cost of our district’s decision.
For those of us who chose not to go off campus for lunch, we’d congregate in the lunch room, spending a half hour talking and letting off steam from the day, particularly during the bitter northern Wisconsin winter. It was then, in the fall and winter of 2002/2003, that a classmate and good friend of mine, who came from a single-parent family, showed up to lunch period a few days in a row empty-handed.
I’m embarrassed and devastated to say it took me several days to notice anything was amiss. Finally, the gears in my head turned enough to catch that something wasn’t right. So I asked her what was wrong – and she shrugged. Nothing. I just want to get some homework done, or I’m not hungry, or I’m not feeling the greatest.
Our group of friends began to sense something sensitive was wrong, and one day, surprised her by packing enough extra lunch in aggregate to bring an entire lunch to school just for her. When she showed up to lunch, she stopped cold – and then broke down in tears.
No; her mom had just been forced to go onto disability because of an injury she’d suffered at work, and they could barely afford rent. In fact, the only reason they even had heat was because the gas company legally couldn’t turn it off in the winter time.
Packed lunch was a luxury they simply didn’t have the money for.
Now, there was an option for kids like her. If your family couldn’t afford to send lunch to school with you, you could present yourself to the school office when the lunch bell rang, and line up with any kids in similar circumstances… whereupon you would be unceremoniously handed a brown paper bag with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, an apple, and one carton of skim milk. It then meant walking back to the already-full cafeteria, running the gamut of kids already well into their meals, and trying to find somewhere to sit.
That’s why my friend opted to go hungry – rather than face the social humiliation of having to parade in front of the entire school with your “poor kids’ lunch.”
I wrestled with what to do when I got home that day. My friend had made it clear she wasn’t going to take our “charity”; I could tell she was touched our group of friends cared about her that much, but she felt demeaned and humiliated by what we’d done.
By total happenstance, there was an article in the local newspaper that day. The local school board had voted specifically to NOT start a school lunch program, the third or fourth year in a row such measures had failed. One of the two votes it failed by was from a school board member who lived not far from me, who’d already made the decision to not run again next year.
School lunch, he’d said, wasn’t “cost effective to taxpayers.”
Bullshit, I thought to myself as the proverbial light bulb went on over my head. This is unacceptable.
So I skipped class the next day, drove myself down to the city office building, and harangued the city clerk until she walked me through all the paperwork I needed to file to run for office. My entire platform? “Start a hot lunch program for every school.”
As I began knocking doors in the middle of a Wisconsin winter, I discovered that there were many, many people who did not share my views – not just didn’t share them, but were downright hostile to them. I had doors slammed in my face. My parents got a half-dozen messages on their answering machine that were… unkind, to say the least.
But the kicker for me was a complaint we got that said, in no uncertain terms – and I’ll never forget this as long as I live – “School lunch is a waste of money. Kids will probably throw most of their food away, and I’m not having my tax dollars pay for that just so a couple freeloaders can get fat on my dime!”
I knew it was a long shot, but I was damned if I was going to let my friend, and the kids like her all the way down to elementary school, go hungry or be humiliated even one more day for the heinous sin of being born to poor parents.
I worked like hell. I did public forums and debates. I went on the local radio shows. I worked and froze my butt off. Hell, since I was 17 at the time, I couldn’t even vote for myself on the day of the primary – but I still stood at the polling place I would have voted at with a little handmade sign, waving and greeting people as they arrived.
The election results came in… and I came in dead last. 296 votes out of five thousand some cast, if I recall correctly.
I was shocked, morose. I knew I’d gotten a frosty reception… but what now? What about my friend, and all the other kids like her? But just as I was reeling with the implications of that, our phone rang. My mom brought it to me – and on the other end was the winning candidate. He talked with me for a good five minutes. Told me I’d run “a hell of a race”, and that I shouldn’t let the loss get me down or take away from that.
And before he hung up, he told me, in no uncertain terms, that he would make sure that my classmates got a school lunch program. That it would be his first priority when he took office.
He kept his word, and did exactly that. They passed an initiative to finally make hot lunch available at every school the very next year, the very first thing. And though another fifteen years elapsed before I decided to seek elected office again, I can trace it back to knocking doors in subfreezing temperatures, trudging through the snow in a Wisconsin winter, as where it all began.
So this issue isn’t new to me. And it’s just as important now as it was back then. Kids need food. They need nutritious, filling meals to be able to do the work we expect them to do, day in and day out. To have the scholastic performance we want them to have. And food insecurity is an issue too many people don’t take seriously – when I was an elementary and middle school nurse at Albemarle County Public Schools, do you know how many kids we had to send food home with on the weekends?
I’ll tell you this – I’m not going to wait for the federal government to act on this again. I intend to file legislation so that Virginia continues to fund those programs fully. Our tax-break-loving governor found a hundred million dollars in the state budget to throw at charter schools; but, once again, it seems like I’m faced again with someone who thinks that providing school lunch for kids isn’t “cost effective”.
But I’m ready to fight. To prove that unapologetic progressives can run and win in rural Virginia.
But I need your help to get it done. We’re going up against an entrenched, 22-year incumbent in the bluest district the Virginia GOP still holds- and they’ve made no qualms about the fact that they’ll spend as many millions of dollars as it’ll take to hold it. But we don’t need their dark money to win, because we’re powered by individual grassroots donors; no corporate money, no fossil fuel money… just people like you.