Out of habit, Randy Gantt eats with the same four close buddies every day. They grew up together in the same Brookland neighborhood, so they naturally ended up sharing lunch in the cafeteria at Taft Junior High School.
They have something else in common. They are all what some of their peers derisively call freeloaders -- students who are in the D.C. school's subsidized lunch program. Of the approximately 100,000 students in the city's public school system, about 52,300 eat lunches prepared in the schools. According to October food service statistics, about 41,000, or 80 percent, receive free or reduced-price meals.
School principals and cafeteria workers contend there is no way to distinguish between the students who pay the full cost of the lunches -- 60 cents per day -- and those who do not, since free and free lunch rosters are kept secret and all meal tickets look the same except for distinguishing code letters (XX for free, Y for reduced or Z for full-price lunch).
But Gantt, 14, a ninth grader, and other junior and senior high school youths on the free lunch program, say their peers can tell easily who eats for free.
"Every Monday, people go down to the cafeteria to get a meal ticket for the week," explains Bobby Frith, 14, one of Gantt's lunch buddies. "If you give the cashier money, everybody knows you're paying the full price or you're on a reduced lunch. If you get a ticket without giving money, they know you're eating free lunch."
Gantt has been on the free lunch program since the fourth grade, when he transferred from St. Anthony's Grade School.
He says the teasing from his classmates takes many forms. A fellow student might make remarks about him and his family while nudging him in the lunch line, in the hallway or on the school playground.
"Hey, man, why you got to be a freeloader?" one might ask, or, in front of others, "Why doesn't your mother give you money to buy lunch?"
It happens often enough, Gantt says, that he is forced to remember that he and his grandparents, who reared him, are struggling daily against poverty.
Taft principal James Howe says about half of the students who eat in Taft's cafeteria are on the free lunch program. Howe, who began at Taft as a teacher more than 16 years ago, says, "Usually, the kids who are doing the kidding are the ones who should be on free lunch themselves, but are ashamed."
He adds, "The kids are a reflection of society.People try to throw the brick before it's thrown at them, and people still look down on those who are less fortunate."
A gregarious teen-ager, Gantt is considered popular at Taft. Two years ago, he earned the admiration of his peers by designing and building a jetpropelled, aerodynamic Metric 500 dragster that he engineered in wood shop. The car won a first-place award in D.C. city-wide racing competition. His classmates still laugh about his crowd-pleasing, comic performance in a talent show at the school last year, when he raced back and forth across the stage on a skateboard. Still, because he receives a free lunch, he is the butt of jibes.
"Sometimes people say things like, 'Ahh, you're poor!' or 'You're on welfare,'" he says. "Sometimes they just laugh at you because you've got to eat if the food is good that day or if it's so bad it makes you sick."
Reginald Holmes, 15, another of Gantt's buddies, noted that on the days when the cafeteria food is least appetizing and most of the students who can afford it buy lunch from nearby stores or fast-food restaurants, the embarrassment of being on the free lunch program is doubled.
"Dudes come up to you and say, 'Dag, man. You're going down to the lunch room and eating that stale lunch? You got to be crazy. We're going somewhere else to eat today,'" Holmes said.
Conversely, some students noted, when the school food is especially tasty, the same kids who ridicule them for eating free lunches suddenly change their tune. "They'll be mad because they're not getting a free lunch," Holmes said.
Most students on the free lunch program say they usually ignore belittling comments, but sometimes, when they've had enough, they do get into arguments.
Taft principal Howe said he believes changing the name of the program at his school helps take some of the stigma out of being on the free program.
"We just call it a 'special lunch' program," he said. "At the junior high school stage, kids are cruel in their assessment of each other. So, we try not to use the term 'free lunch.' If you constantly refer to it as free lunch, you might create problems."
Taft assistant principal Leroy Edwards adds, "The overall thrust in D.C. schools is to get kids into the mainstream, and away from labels or categories. There are psychological problems that could carry over to later years if a child is constantly labeled or singled out for ridicule."
Gantt recalled an incident when a student chose not to eat rather than be ridiculed.
"Last year, there was this guy who filled out his application and was verified, but he never went to get his lunch. He used to mess with the people who did get their lunch. I guess he was scared or ashamed."
The percentage of reduced price and free lunches is, of course, concentrated in the areas with the most low-income households. The percentage ranges from a high of 100 percent in some schools east of the Anacostia River to zero in some schools west of Rock Creek Park.
To qualify for a free lunch, a student's parent or guardian must fill out an application stating family size and annual income. Many, but not all, free lunch recipients belong to families who are on public assistance.
Eligibility for a free lunch ranges from a household with one child with an annual income of $5,230 to a 12-member household with a $23,670 annual income. From there, $1,680 is allowed for each additional family member.
Eligibility for reduced-price lunch ranges from a household with one child earning $8,150 annually to a 12-member household earning $34,880, adding $2,610 for each additional member.
Gantt, who is an only child, makes about $15 spending money by selling peanuts at Washington Redskins' home games. Now 5-foot-5 and 115 pounds, he dreams of future grandeur as a star wide receiver or running back with the Dallas Cowboys.
A nutritional lunch is part of his every-young-man plan. He reaons, "If I'm going to grow strong and healthy, I've got to eat a good meal every day." iHe doesn't have any hangups about receiving a free meal ticket.
Leaning against the wooden bannister on the front porch of his grandparents' two-story rowhouse on 12th Street NE, he concludes in his soft, forthright manner, "I don't think of free lunch as welfare. I know what I can afford and what I can't; so if it's free and I can get it, then I'm going to get it."