Out In The Open

How bringing culturally-specific lunches to school can leave kids feeling ashamed and different

Mia Merryweather Rubenstein noticed she was unique when she moved back from Sweden to the United States and found out that eating fish was not considered standard lunchtime fare in Lansing, New York. Arti Patel was also shamed for her noon hour meals and soon refused to bring homemade lunches.
Two women discuss how bringing culturally-specific lunches to school left them ashamed and feeling different.
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Mia Merryweather Rubenstein first noticed she was unique when she moved back to the United States from Sweden in elementary school. After spending time in Scandinavia, she'd grown accustomed to eating fish at every meal, but found out that was not considered standard lunchtime fare in Lansing, New York.

"'What the hell is that? Why can't you just be normal and eat tater tots and pizza like we do?'" were some of the reactions she received when she would pull out her lunchbox. As a result, she made friends with a variety of characters, saying, "Food was the gateway to sitting with some pretty bizarre people."

Arti Patel was also shamed for her lunch, and soon refused to bring homemade meals to school.

"I used to bring samosas a lot, I used to bring biryani rice with chicken and vegetables, and the rice was always very yellow. I brought curry once and then never brought it again, because kids just wouldn't stop asking me questions," Arti says.

Mia's mother stopped sending sardines after her daughter's complaints, and replaced them with liverwurst sandwiches that were received with similar suspicion.

"When I started getting shamed for my food, I was embarrassed. I didn't want to eat in front of anyone and I think that's actually continued throughout my life where I still try to eat alone — I'd rather not have anyone notice me while I'm eating," says Mia. "As the shaming continued, I just withdrew more, and my eating habits are not the healthiest as a result."

Arti says it was already apparent that she was different from her classmates, and having unique meals only increased the divide further. She would throw out the lovingly prepared meals that her mother sent from home and made her mom get more socially acceptable lunches.

"I think the biggest consequence at that time was me not accepting my identity and who I was, and then also being very embarrassed about it. And then that's something that followed me up to my young adult days where, a lot of the time, I did not like being Indian or I didn't want to be noted as the Indian person in the equation," Arti says. "I don't think I unlearned that until I was a young adult, where I learned to not only appreciate the food that I was eating, but also realized how good it was compared to the crap I was eating when I was a kid."

For her part, Mia is now hyper-aware of the social norms in the cafeteria, and sends her kids to school with carefully prepared lunches that don't provoke shame from classmates.

"It's been good to have had the experiences that I had so that I can be a better mom."

This story originally aired on May 28, 2017