You could be forgiven for missing the signing ceremony of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, coming as it did during the crazed Lame Duck December, when a year's worth of postponed legislation was crammed into a few weeks. The event didn't get much media coverage, partially because the cost was only $4.5 billion—a paltry sum when much larger figures were flying around . And the program could be seen as just an unduly expensive pet project of Michelle Obama, who has been focused on nutrition and obesity as her First Lady missionary work.
The First Lady made her nutritional nannyism clear by declaring, "We can't just leave it up to the parents." [CNS News, December 13, 2010]. Feeding their kids, that is. So the government will choose the proper food, and the taxpayers will pay to dispense it to a lengthening list of deserving groups, such as immigrants and illegal aliens.
"The National School Lunch Program cost $9.8 billion in FY 2009. By comparison, the lunch program's total cost in 1947 was $70 million; in 1950, $119.7 million; in 1960, $225.8 million; in 1970, $565.5 million; in 1980, $3.2 billion, and in 1970, 6.1 billion."
Not so many decades ago, parents were expected to feed their children and were considered competent to do so. The Food Pyramid was taught in school so kids would understand the basics of nutrition and wouldn't struggle so hard against mom's fruits and vegetables.
When I walked to school as a grade-school kid in the previous century, I returned home for lunch every day. I can still remember the mesmerizing appearance of Campbell's tomato soup with its curious red color, plus the floating white oyster crackers, which were similarly mysterious because I didn't understand what an oyster was.
In later years I carried a spiffy lunch-box with a home-made sandwich and some cardboardish carrot sticks. School had machines that supplied cartons of milk for a small price, but that was it.
In high school, there was a cafeteria that cooked up pretty basic chow, like sloppy joes and mashed potatoes. Everybody's favorite was a giant oatmeal cookie the size of a dinner plate, known as a "flying saucer." Some kids had just that for lunch.
So it's hard to understand the fixation of many adults that kids have a school-supplied "hot lunch" rather than mom-built food. Certainly a room-temperature whole wheat sandwich with turkey and sprouts is a lot healthier than a steaming fried grease extravaganza.
If kids were required to bring their own food for lunch, it would also have the advantage of avoiding culture clashes, such the demanding Muslim parents who want halal food served to their so-special kiddies, from Dearborn to Lodi. Sometimes the schools find it more convenient to quietly serve halal food only, as has happened in the UK.
Halal meat is slaughtered with particular cruelty, so it is objectionable for more than religious reasons. Plus non-Muslims might consider Allah-blessed food to be repellant.
And some Americans regard pork chops an essential part of their culture. The alleged joys of increased diversity could never compensate for the loss of barbecued ribs.
Sadly, the schools have become Commissar Central for training kids to believe that food comes from the government. Many poor families are fine with that idea since it saves money for other needs. Immigrants in particular acculturate quickly to state-supplied chow.
Some years back (1853 in New York City!) the idea of free school lunches for poor kids started up. In our own time, generous do-gooders added snacks and breakfast. Later, worries accumulated about what the children were eating during weekends and in the summer, so programs for those times were created as well, like "Seamless Summer." When some Maryland districts were closed because of snow in February 2010, schools put out free food so families wouldn't have to spend their own money to eat, since the taxpayer's pocket is always open.
Food do-gooderism has gone off the rails here in California, which is the Big Enchilada of nanny-state giveaways. Concerns now extend beyond mere nutrition to self-esteem: school administrators became anxious that kids might feel bad if their peers knew they got free or subsidized food. So the trend has been for schools to provide free meals for everyone to eliminate possible stigma, courtesy of the unwilling taxpayer, despite the cost in a tough budget environment.
For example, 18 schools in Santa Ana offered free breakfast and lunch for every kid, with no requirement of financial need.
"Every student at 18 of Santa Ana Unified's campuses will receive a free breakfast and lunch for the entire school year regardless of whether they qualify for the federal free and reduced-price meal program.
"For the third consecutive year, the district will participate in a U.S. Department of Agriculture program aimed at improving nutrition among students in schools serving the neediest populations.
"The 18 schools each have at least 85 percent of students already qualifying for free or reduced-price meals. Officials say the program will also help reduce administrative costs by freeing up district staff from processing thousands of free and reduced-price lunch applications."
Free meals for all at 18 Santa Ana schools By Fermin Leal, Orange County Register, September 3, 2010|
As a consequence of the creeping nanny state, the idea that free food is only for the genuinely needy is disappearing rapidly.
Incidentally, the schools don't discriminate against non-students. It's not unheard-of in some schools for whole families to be lined up for food with doggie bags in hand.
Michelle Obama tries to split hairs by emphasizing Nutrition rather than the irreconcilable opposites. It's long been my opinion that she wanted to go on a diet and decided to make it into her personal First Lady project.
Another problem: getting finicky kids to actually eat the healthy chow that's good for them. Kids throw away a lot of good food because many prefer chips and Cokes. (For an infuriating earful on this subject, listen to a 2009 John and Ken radio show where southern California listeners vented about waste and mooching in school feedings, starting at 7:20 in.)
As a result of picky eaters, we see rather fancy menus cooked up for acceptance by junior palates. School dinners in DC recently began including items like salmon salad, whole wheat rolls and corn relish. Nice eats, and the price is right!
On the other hand, the economy stinks and many families are having a rough time making ends meet. Isn't it grinchy to begrudge hungry children a few billion dollars in free-to-them year-round breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks?
Not so much, according to Heritage scholar Robert Rector. His studies have shown the incidence of actual hunger is highly overstated, even given our economic difficulties.
"Political advocates proclaim that the USDA reports show there is widespread chronic hunger in the U.S. But the USDA clearly and specifically does not identify food insecurity with the more intense condition of 'hunger,' which it defines as 'discomfort, illness, weakness, or pain … caused by prolonged involuntary lack of food.' As the USDA report explicitly states, most 'food insecure' homes did not cut back their intake at all." (Significant food shortages rare in America, By Robert Rector, Washington Times, November 24, 2010)
Rector also appeared in a Fox News segment (October 19, 2010) commenting on the expanding government food bureaucracy in which "more than 30 million US students receive some type of government-funded meal at school each day."
Taxpayers who are furious about a government addicted to spending shouldn't hold back from criticizing programs that appear to serve innocent kiddies. The Washington nanny state must be pruned back to the ground, because we are broke. We cannot afford the alleged good intentions of liberals whose generosity is unbounded when spending other people's money. Their real aim is control, although the argument is wrapped in wholesome vitamins and minerals.
As for the immigrants and illegal aliens who avail themselves of aubsidized food and additional freebies, they do so to spend on other things, like shiny pickup trucks, nifty electronic gadgets and billions of dollars in remittances sent abroad.
It's bad enough that we have given the aliens the rope with which to hang us (in Lenin's formulation).
But we are also feeding them breakfast and lunch.
Brenda Walker (email her) lives in Northern California and publishes two websites, LimitsToGrowth.org and ImmigrationsHumanCost.org. As a Berkeley resident, she is a thoughtful eater of nutritious fresh fruits and veggies because she considers nutrition an important part of a healthy balanced life.