Students unclear about free and reduced lunch options

Kendall McGowan and Maya Piken

A meal from the cafeteria, consisting of one main dish, two sides and a drink. Some students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals have struggled with the lack of clarity surrounding what components constitute a breakfast or lunch. Photo by Sofia Tong.
A meal from the cafeteria, consisting of one main dish, two sides and a drink. Some students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals have struggled with the lack of clarity surrounding what components constitute a breakfast or lunch. Photo by Sofia Tong.

For most students, a trip to the cafeteria is routine and does not inspire much stress or concern. However, students who qualify for free or reduced lunch face the risk of confusion and embarrassment because they are uncertain of which foods are available to them on their meal plans.

Senior Karina Da Rosa has been on the free and reduced lunch program for all of her time at the high school. However, after four years, she still does not feel informed on what lunch items are available to her through the program.

“You can’t get sushi or edamame,” Da Rosa said. “I can’t have anything in those fridges, none of the drinks unless it is the milk in the center, none of the chips or snacks in front of the registers, and with tea and coffee, unless I pay for them myself they don’t qualify as free and reduced lunch. Or maybe they do, and I’m just wrong.”

Acting Assistant Director of the Brookline Food Services Teresa Vidette agrees that the system is confusing.

“I have asked numerous times if maybe during the freshman orientation they could have an orientation with the cafeteria so that they have a little bit more understanding,” Vidette said. “And it’s not just people who are on the program; it’s everybody. It is a bit confusing.”

According to Da Rosa, the lack of communication about what students can get on free lunch has led some students to go without food rather than face the confusion in the cafeteria.

“There are kids who haven’t eaten lunch all year because they don’t know they have free lunch or they don’t know what they get, so they just don’t eat at all,” Da Rosa said.

According to Brookline Director of Food Services Alden Cadwell, 11 percent of students in Brookline receive free or reduced lunch. Students qualify if their family’s income is within a certain range or if they receive other forms of government assistance.

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Students on free and reduced lunch are entitled to two meals per school day: breakfast and lunch. A breakfast consists of a main dish, one side and a milk or drink, while a lunch consists of a main dish, two sides and a milk or drink. According to Cadwell, a meal counts automatically as breakfast until 10:30. If breakfast is purchased after that time a student must specify that they want their meal to count as breakfast.

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Photos by Kendall McGowan and Maya Piken.

The town of Brookline is reimbursed by the government after the free and reduced meals are served. The cafeteria also sells other items which the government does not reimburse the town for, such as chips and most drinks. According to Vidette, these additional items are sold to help the cafeteria pay its expenses.

“Even though we are part of the school we pay our own bills,” Vidette said. “The Brookline Food Service, on top of the free and reduced program, we also have to sell products so that we can be a business to make money.”

According to Vidette, some items are not reimbursed because of their lack of nutritional value.

“There are items that are not on the list of foods considered to have the right nutritional values, like water. We cannot give you water on our meal but we can give you fruit and juice because those have the nutrients.”

According to senior Athalia Lopez, the students on free and reduced lunch who do buy food from the cafeteria are often unsure about what food they are eligible for. As a result they become confined to only choosing the foods that they are sure they can get, such as pizza, in order to avoid embarrassment.

“Every time you go to the cafeteria to get something, it’s embarrassing when they tell you, ‘Hey, you can’t get that. Go to the back of the line’ or ‘Put it back,’” Lopez said. “Or they just take it from you, and I think a lot of the time it restricts the students and confines them to ‘I know I can get this, I’m going to stick to getting it.’”

Vidette explained that what students are being denied is not the meal itself, but the items which do not count on the meal plan.

“A lot of times they are so embarrassed hearing ‘no’ that they aren’t asking why,” Vidette said. “For example, they would be denied water, chips, snacks or coffee. It’s unfortunate when they aren’t asking, because they aren’t denied the meal, they are denied what they are taking.”

Confusion may stem from inconsistencies among the exceptions the cafeteria workers make.

“Sometimes a kid might grab something that isn’t on the program but the register person might let it slide the first time,” Vidette said. “But then they’ll go back a second time and it is a different person there.”

Lopez said that being called out in the lunch line in front of one’s peers can be embarrassing.

“You go into the caf and there is a long line, and those people are so quick to yell in your face and say ‘you can’t grab that, hey, that’s not free,’” Lopez said. “I don’t care if someone says that out loud, but I know a lot of people who if you tell them their business, especially if they are going through a financial issue, it’s embarrassing.”

According to Vidette, all that comes up when a student pays for their lunch is a name and a number, so the person at the register doesn’t know who is or isn’t on free or reduced lunch. If the student on free or reduced lunch attempts to purchase items which exceed or do not count towards their two meals, and don’t have the balance to pay for them, the cafeteria worker is simply informed that they don’t have enough money in their account.

“We don’t look at people who are on the program; we don’t really know that,” Vidette said. “It’s a blind system. If kids are coming to the register saying that they are being denied, we just see a dummy number. We aren’t singling out free and reduced people because we don’t know.”

The cafeteria is taking steps to curb the confusion, such as creating the fliers they have begun to display and distribute recently describing what constitutes a meal and what counts as sides.

Vidette said she is eager to work with students to improve their experience and hopes they reach out to cafeteria staff.

“We’re really here for you,” she said. “Communicate with us more; we really aren’t the bad guys.”

Maya Piken can be contacted at [email protected]