When I was in junior high school, one day my mother decided to pack me a more interesting lunch than my usual sandwich-and-a-side.
I can't remember what it was, other than it was something I loved to eat at home. What I do remember, more than a quarter-century later, is the snorts of derision from my sandwich-munching peers. I was doing something "different," and at the age of 13, being "different" was the worst thing imaginable. I ended up throwing my special treat away and going hungry.
So I can empathize with kids Albuquerque who are facing the dread new "cheese sandwich policy." With hundreds of parents in months in arrears on school lunch bills, children are being served a "courtesy lunch" of a cold cheese sandwich, fruit and milk.
"Every time I eat it, it makes me feel like I want to throw up," says seven-year-old Danessa Vigil. She vows she'll never eat cheese again.
"Some parents don't have even $1 sometimes," her mother Darlene tells the Associated Press. "If they do, it's for something else, like milk at home. There are some families that just don't have it and that's the reason they're not paying."
Albuquerque school officials understand the problem, but they also see the mounting debt on their budget sheets. Since the start of the school year they have tabulated $140,000 in unpaid lunch fees, and project that this debt will grow to $300,000 by the end of the year.
Federal law prevents them from applying school lunch money towards the debt. So they remind parents with an automated collection call each night and a note sent home each week, netting them about $91,000 since the start of the alternative lunch program.
They've been shuttling as many kids as possible -- among them Danessa Vigil -- into the free- and reduced-rate lunch programs. Like other school districts around the country, they've come up with the low-cost sandwich lunch to fill the gap.
Critics say the school district is stigmatizing children for their parents poverty. They report that in some schools kids are pulled out of the main lunch line to get their special meals. Some parents say the anxiety is so severe that the children don't even want to go to school, much less lunch.
It's a story with no villans, just the new math: neither the parents nor the school district has enough money to meet their obligations.
The school district can either let these children going hungry -- and in some states, that does happen -- or come up with an alternative until they can find an actual solution. For their part, parents need to overcome their own embarrassment, stop ducking the issue, and see if they can come up with a debt-resolution plan and enroll in programs designed to give their kids access to the still-unappetizing but socially-acceptable lunch line.
Clearly, if they are going to have to hold to these policies, the school districts should find a way to serve these prosaic lunches without making them feel like they are being singled out for punishment -- perhaps by winding it into a larger discussion how this new Depression is going to affect the lives of all of us.
Because when they understand the big picture even a kid can grasp that in the greater scheme of things, a cheese sandwich ain't that bad.
Recently: We looked at a strangely sexist poll run by a popular newsmagazine, talked about the bailout of mom-to-14 Nadya Suleman, and deconstructed our animal natures as reflected by the tale of Travis the Chimp.