Actually, There Is Such A Thing As A Free Lunch

Actually, There Is Such A Thing As A Free Lunch September 30, 2021


The topic on social media is school lunches today.

I’m not sure where it all started. Somebody shared a clip of a blonde commentator on Fox new saying it “kills me” that children in New Jersey get a free lunch in the school cafeteria. “Those kids are all going to grow up thinking school lunch is free!” which, for them, it is.

She seemed to be thinking of that old adage, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.”

School lunches for children always seems like the strangest thing to harp on, to me. Do you know how many children in America get a free lunch? All of them. Or, at least, all the children who eat lunch eat it for free, because children can’t work in America. Children can’t earn a paycheck. Child labor is illegal, because children are supposed to be in school. While in school, they study all day instead of working for a living– and this is a good thing, because back when children worked all day in factories it was catastrophically abusive for them and a lot of children died painful deaths. Now, children go to school while grown-ups work. In the middle of the school day, children have twenty minutes for lunch and another twenty to play on the playground. Some of those children spend the twenty minutes eating a lunch their families packed for them, and they are the lucky ones. The rest eat a hot lunch from the cafeteria kitchen, which is usually extremely cheap and unpalatable.  School lunches are so legendarily bad that venerable children’s books like the Wayside School series have whole chapters lampooning them. No one looks forward to a school lunch. They get it over with as soon as possible so they can go play.

Regardless, exactly zero of those children pay for that lunch. Either their parents or their community’s tax money do.

Children who don’t go to a school building for their education still get a free lunch. My daughter homeschools and she gets a free lunch, because I buy and cook it for her. That’s what children do, in a civilized society. They eat food that somebody gave them. I’m the last person to say that the United States is as civilized as it should be, but at least most children get educated during the day instead of working in a sweat shop here.

When we deny poor children a lunch at school, we’re not teaching them to be industrious so they can earn lunch next time. Children can’t be industrious. They are legally prevented from being industrious because they have to go to school. We are hurting and humiliating helpless people who have no agency to change their situation in order to stick it to their parents, who may or may not be helpless. Most poor adults aren’t lazy and not all rich adults are industrious, but you can certainly find adults who are poor because they are lazy. But no poor children are poor because they are lazy. Poor children are poor because of somebody else’s choices. Punishing helpless people for somebody else’s laziness is barbaric.

A brutal person would suggest that we go back to forcing children to work for their meals. That would be a position that is immoral, but logically consistent.

A reasonable and reasonably just person would respond differently. They’d say that, since it’s impossible for children to earn their own food because they’re legally compelled to be busy studying, but the children can’t study without eating enough to stay alive, it’s only fair that they be fed during their studies.  In fact, since children have no say about whether they go to school and often don’t like it, it would be just to make sure the lunch is of good quality and something they look forward to.

It takes a person who is both brutal and deeply unreasonable to say that the answer is to starve and humiliate some children who didn’t earn a bad lunch, while letting other children who didn’t earn a bad lunch eat their fill or pick at it and then go play, but not giving either group of children the opportunity to earn the bad lunch.

Then again, “brutal and deeply unreasonable” seems to be the modus operandi of the Republican party. The Democratic party is closer to “deeply unreasonable and less likely to be brutal in practice,” but the Republicans relish their brutality and call it being pro-life.

It seems to me that going through all of this performative outrage because children get a free tray of cheap nourishment even if their parents are poor is about as anti-life as you can get.



image via pixabay

Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.
Steel Magnificat operates almost entirely on tips. To tip the author, visit our donate page.





"I don't know if it is "controversial", but I am rather fond of "The Man ..."

It’s A Wonderful Night for a ..."
"I've never seen It's a Wonderful Life, and don't intend to. I learned most of ..."

It’s A Wonderful Night for a ..."
"Comment stuck in holding."

It’s A Wonderful Night for a ..."

Browse Our Archives