It’s hard to believe in just a few weeks it will already be time for school to start again. It seems like the kids were just getting out a week ago and now we’re already out buying new uniforms and searching for two-pocket, three-pronged folders in the one color no store seems to carry.

There’s always plenty of excitement associated with back-to-school time but I always kind of dread the initial transition from the lazy days of summer break into hectic days of balancing my own job with school schedules, homework and extracurricular activities. There is, however, one major change that might make school nights just a little less hectic for many local parents who spend their evenings packing lunches or making sure their little one has lunch money.

This year all students in the Mobile County Public School System will receive cafeteria lunches at no charge, after the school system qualified for the Community Eligibility Provision of the USDA. This federal program, provided at no cost to the local system, allows school systems with 75 percent of the students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches to offer free meals to all students.

As of last year school lunches were $2 a day for elementary and middle school students and $2.25 for high school students, with the new program creating a savings of several hundred dollars a year for families who didn’t previously qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Suzanne Yates, director of the Child Nutrition Program for Mobile County Public Schools, says the new program will help reduce the stigma that comes with qualifying for free meals, since the meals will be automatic and no one will be required to apply for the program. Yates and other school officials believe the program will make healthy meals available to a wider number of students, since many struggling families hesitated to apply for free or reduced-price meals out of embarrassment.

Personally I think it sounds like a great idea and I hope the program finds much success. I should acknowledge my own family will benefit, which was a nice surprise, but I think it’s a good program in general. Not only did I worry about children who previously qualified for free lunch not receiving the benefit because their parents were either too embarrassed or didn’t know how to apply, but I personally know several families who miss the financial cutoff for free or reduced-price lunches but nevertheless struggle to feed their children at school.

Anyone who’s ever truly lived paycheck-to-paycheck knows how easy it is for unexpected expenses or even a half day of missed work to throw your budget into turmoil. Imagine finding yourself a week from payday with only $20 left to either spend on lunch for your two kids or gas to get to work all week. That’s not a choice I’d wish on any parent.

I felt this way long before I ever had kids and I hope I’ll feel this way long after mine are grown, but of all the potential uses for my federal tax dollars, making sure every child receives a healthy meal during the school day is somewhere close to the top of my priorities.

After reading local comments about the issue I quickly realized my opinion is well within the minority, at least among those most vocal on the matter. While I might not agree, I can certainly understand the argument that it’s simply not necessary to provide free meals to children who can afford to pay, and I can acknowledge the program is something of a windfall to families that weren’t necessarily struggling to provide lunch for their children.

However, I find it extremely hard to relate to the large numbers of Mobilians who are against the free lunch program altogether, regardless of a family’s inability to pay. Comments included open disgust towards people who need help feeding their children as well as assumptions that families who receive free school lunches don’t work, are already receiving welfare and food stamps, and are raising children who will remain fully dependent on the government in adulthood.

While I’m sure the stereotypes hold true in some cases, I think you’d find that just as many free lunch recipients look a lot more like me and my brothers, who qualified for free lunch all the way through school.

We had a parent who worked full-time (and often overtime) to meet most of our basic needs, but with six kids there was just never quite enough.

We did not receive welfare or food stamps, although I’m sure we qualified for both. Fortunately our mother was willing to humble herself enough to accept free school lunches, wanting to ensure that however tight her budget, her children would not go hungry at school.

Unfortunately I was too embarrassed to claim my lunches after elementary school and, without my mother’s knowledge, I skipped lunch for the next six years. I was afraid people would think I was poor, and while 75 percent of the kids around me were in exactly the same boat, we all tried to hide it from each other.

Despite the “handouts,” my brothers and I were nevertheless taught to work hard and take pride in the work we do. We emerged from poverty to become productive members of society who contribute at least as much as we ever received, with our bunch including a talented life-saving medical professional as well as a decorated Iraq War veteran who was injured while attempting to save the life of another.

I’m sure it’s easy to judge my parents – get a better job, don’t be poor, don’t have six kids, etc. – and if you think it’s really that simple then I know I won’t change your mind. But that’s really all beside the point. The reality was that we already existed, and our circumstances were not our fault. We were children, and we were hungry.