By Jeremiah Castillo
Photo By Claudia Gonzalez
Editor’s Note: Jeremiah Castillo, 13, is a seventh-grader at Cruickshank Middle School, part of the Merced City Elementary School District, which in January approved a new policy requiring all students to pay $1.50 for extra helpings during meal time. Around 45 percent of students at the school qualify for free or reduced price meals. Castillo recently testified at a community forum hosted by the district, where he spoke out against the policy and stressed the importance of providing “free lunches for all kids.”
After coming back from winter break this January, I noticed changes at my school, Cruickshank Middle School.
I get free lunch meals, but when I went to get more food because I was still hungry, the cafeteria staff told me each additional entree cost $1.50. Surprised, I asked why and was informed Merced City School District (MCSD) had implemented a new policy as of January 1st.
This policy states even students who qualify for free lunch now have to pay a fee. But if kids pay $1.50 every day, they would end up paying $30 for lunch monthly, something which is not acceptable.
Learning this made me upset. I immediately felt pain in my stomach and my heart.
I tried to look for information online, but I could not find anything. We were never told that such changes would occur. The school only put flyers in the cafeteria to notify us.
Now, if I am hungry, I cannot eat again unless I have money everyday. My mom can’t afford to give me extra money for food at school, a place where I am supposed to eat free.
This also means I can no longer get food for my friends because they removed the ‘sharing tray,’ leaving many of them hungry. These school meals are the only thing some of them eat.
It also makes me sad to know I have friends who do not get free lunch and whose parents can’t afford to give them lunch money everyday. I believe all kids should eat for free.
Last week, I testified at the MCSD Community Forum because I felt I needed to speak up. I wanted to tell the people in charge what their changes are doing to my friends, all the kids at school, and me.
Recently, I have seen my friends get referrals for ‘willful defiance’ or even put in Community Day School (CDS) because they can’t focus and get grouchy due to hunger. It is painful to watch my friends go through this and see them get in trouble.
Kids who end up in CDS classes often get kicked out of school and are at higher risk of dropping out of high school and ending up in prison. Being hungry, in my opinion, sets kids up for failure.
At my middle school, most of us are going through physical and mental changes because of puberty. This alone is hard enough. We don’t need hunger affecting our growth and mental development.
Since this change, I have felt so distraught and helpless at school. My friends feel the same way too. Having free meals would help us all do better at school and help our families not struggle as much.
I have been learning about how to change policies and will be fighting for all kids to eat for free.
I hope others will too because no child should go hungry, especially at school.