The casual cruelty of the Republican party and the emergence of a local hero
Jane Black has an article at Huffington Post, “Revenge of the Lunch Lady,” that is totally worth reading just for the personal drama and vindication of a government employee. Read the whole thing, but let me quote just one section. (The article is long, but fascinating.)
. . . To those unfamiliar with the absurdist theater of school lunch, it is puzzling, even maddening, that feeding kids nutritious food should be so hard. You buy good food. You cook it. You serve it to hungry kids.
Yet the National School Lunch Program, an $11.7 billion behemoth that feeds more than 31 million children each day, is a mess, and has been for years. Conflicts of interest were built into the program. It was pushed through Congress after World War II with the support of military leaders who wanted to ensure that there would be enough healthy young men to fight the next war, and of farmers who were looking for a place to unload their surplus corn, milk and meat. The result was that schools became the dumping ground for the cheap calories our modern agricultural system was designed to overproduce.
This tension has played out over and over again, with children usually ending up the losers. A case in point: In 1981, America was awash in surplus dairy. The government’s Inland Storage and Distribution Center—a network of tunnels beneath Kansas City, Missouri—was filled with 200 million pounds of cheese and butter, stacked “like frozen pillars and stretching over acres of gray stone floor,” according to The Associated Press. In an effort to ease the glut, the USDA purchased millions of pounds of dairy for schools. But, according to Janet Poppendieck, a professor at Hunter College who specializes in poverty and hunger, this encouraged dairy farmers to keep on milking. So in 1986 the government had to create a new program, the Whole Herd Buyout, which paid farmers to slaughter the dairy cows. The government then bought the beef, which was turned into hamburger, taco meat and so on for school lunch.
That flood of meat and dairy hiked the fat content of school meals just as the country was descending into an anti-fat frenzy. In 1990, the federal government issued new dietary guidelines, declaring that a healthy diet should contain no more than 30 percent fat, with a 10 percent cap on saturated fat. But cafeterias simply had too much of the wrong food to comply. In a USDA study of 544 schools conducted several years later, only 1 percent met the requirement for overall fat and just a single school had managed to keep saturated fat to a healthy level. The deeply conflicted nature of the program was showing itself once again.
Since the 1990s, the USDA has made many improvements—it now requires that canned vegetables have less salt and insists that ground beef be 95 percent lean. But school lunch is still a disgrace, and the timidity of Congress is largely to blame. In 2011, the USDA proposed limiting the amount of potatoes and other starchy vegetables permitted in school lunches so that cafeterias could make room for healthier options. But the Senate, led by members from two top potato producers, Maine and Colorado, killed the idea in a unanimous vote. Then there’s the pizza lobby. When the 2010 revision of nutrition standards increased the minimum amount of tomato paste required for pizza to count as a vegetable from two tablespoons—the typical amount found on a slice—to half a cup, the National Frozen Pizza Institute and other groups howled, and Congress opted for the status quo. The idea that pizza might not be considered a vegetable was, apparently, un-American.
What makes school lunch so contentious, though, isn’t just the question of what kids eat, but of which kids are doing the eating. As Poppendieck recounts in her book, Free for All: Fixing School Food in America, the original program provided schools with food and, later, cash to subsidize the cost of meals. But by the early 1960s, schools weren’t receiving enough to feed all their students, and many pulled out of the program. As a result, middle-class students, whose parents could cover the difference between the government subsidy and the actual cost of a meal, ended up benefiting the most from school lunch, while the truly needy went hungry. This moral failing became clear in 1968, when a landmark report called “Their Daily Bread” revealed that only one-third of the 6 million children living in poverty were receiving free or subsidized lunch. Schools’ ability to pay for food was so limited that one in Mississippi rotated 100 lunches among more than 400 students, while another in Alabama had just 15 meals for 1,000 needy kids. School lunch had its first official scandal.
In response, Congress, which had preferred to let schools decide who got to eat and who did not, established a three-tiered system. Students from families with incomes up to 25 percent above the federal poverty line—about $3,300 for a family of four, or around $24,000 in today’s dollars—were entitled to free meals. Those from families with incomes between 25 and 95 percent above the poverty line paid a reduced price, while everyone else paid the full price. (Just to make things extra confusing, schools also received a small subsidy for those meals as well). This system had the virtue of guaranteeing that the poorest children would be fed. But it also transformed school lunch from a program designed to feed all students into one for the poor.
Once school lunch was perceived as welfare, it became a target. President Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980 on a promise to slash domestic spending, attacked the program. It was one thing to help the genuinely needy, Reagan’s budget director David Stockman declared, but it was “wasteful” to support middle- and upper-class families who could afford to buy lunch. What he didn’t mention was that the cutoff for a free meal was nowhere near a middle-class income and excluded many kids who needed the help.
Still, Congress agreed to cut the small subsidy for full-price lunches by more than a third. The effect was quick and severe. Lunch prices rose, and in the space of just three years, more than a quarter of the kids in the full-price tier stopped buying school lunch. With fewer students participating and smaller reimbursements for each meal served, schools lost their (already limited) economies of scale. The ensuing budget crisis forced schools to seek out even cheaper food—the highly processed stuff, such as chicken nuggets and corn dogs, that they are now condemned for serving. And on it goes.
Not that any of these cautionary tales have diminished the Republicans’ desire to gut the program. In 2014, now-House Speaker Paul Ryan said that public assistance, including school lunch, offered a “full stomach and an empty soul” because it made kids reliant on government handouts. With the party now in control of Congress and the White House—and with Michelle Obama, the program’s greatest defender, gone—school lunch is as vulnerable as it’s ever been.
One Republican strategy to hobble school lunch involves changing an innocuous-sounding proposal called the Community Eligibility Provision. The formula for CEP is complex, but it essentially allows schools in high-poverty areas to provide free meals to all students. This alleviates the administrative burden of keeping track of who qualifies for which tier, and allows money that would normally be spent on administration to go toward paying cooks or buying better food instead.
Judging by its popularity among food service directors, CEP has been one of the most successful innovations in school-lunch policy in decades. Studies show the program reduces the long-standing stigma for kids getting free lunch and enables those who don’t qualify for subsidized meals, but who actually need them, to eat if they’re hungry. This prevents situations like the one that took place last fall, when a school cafeteria worker in Pennsylvania resigned after having to take away the lunch of a first-grader whose parents failed to pay their bill. Not surprisingly, CEP has been embraced in impoverished areas like North Dakota, Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia, where food-service directors have been forced to hire collection agencies to chase down parents who haven’t paid for their kids’ meals.
Conservatives insist that it’s not the taxpayers’ job to cover for negligent parents. Todd Rokita, an Indiana Republican who chairs the House subcommittee that oversees school food, called CEP “perverse,” alleging that it incentivizes schools to give free meals to students who either already pay or are capable of paying for school lunch. This despite the fact that schools, like most places in America, have become increasingly segregated by socioeconomics over the last two decades. So the throngs of coddled middle-class kids Rokita thinks are eating for free don’t actually exist.
Rhonda McCoy is emphatic that kids shouldn’t be punished for their families’ financial situations. “It’s not their fault that the parents didn’t pay the bill,” she said. Before CEP, she remembers getting calls, which she said “broke my heart,” about students who chose to go hungry rather than have an embarrassing conversation about money. But if Rokita wins this battle, more than 7,000 schools, feeding nearly 3.4 million kids, will once again have to start charging for some meals. In West Virginia, the new formula would exclude 327 schools, including all 26 in Cabell County. “This would all be over,” McCoy told me. “It would kill us.” . . .