House Republicans Are Doing What They Can to Keep Healthy Food Out of the Mouths of Poor Kids

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May 22 2014 6:00 PM

The Hungry, Healthy-Free Kids Act

House Republicans are doing what they can to keep healthy food out of the mouths of poor kids.

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But fries are just a side dish, right? The real red meat of the House’s pushback on feeding hungry kids has to do with the National School Breakfast and School Lunch programs. And once again, the summer meals programs are coming under attack. These are on-site breakfast or lunch plans tied to enrichment programming for kids while they’re out of school. Many of the families who take advantage of these programs already rely on support from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families subsidies to stretch budgets through the school year (programs that are perpetually on the chopping block themselves). Summer meal programs are as rational and effective for low-income families as school lunches; not only in providing consistent meals for hungry kids, but also in pairing those meals with structured, supervised activities, which helps working parents keep kids occupied when school is out. They also connect marginalized families to their communities to stave off some of the isolation that comes with serious poverty.

So what’s the problem? The overall summer program has come under scrutiny since its inception in 2010, even though it is quite small in comparison to the school breakfast and lunch plans, only feeding about one in every seven kids who need the meals program during the school year. This year the Obama administration asked Congress for an additional $30 million to help it do better than that by piloting some strategies to connect more kids to summer meals. Feeding hungry kids? It’s a gimme, right? But the House plan not only reduced the pilot’s appropriation by 10 percent to $27 million, it also just announced plans to limit the program to benefit only “rural area” school districts, which will actually be limited even further to rural Appalachia. Nowhere are we told why the urban/rural distinction matters for hungry kids, although you are certainly free to guess. (Hint: “Rural” regions may tend to vote Republican and contain fewer minorities.)

Beyond the dog whistle suggesting that “urban” poor are less worthy than the rural poor lies data showing that the distinction is absurd. There is tremendous need in impoverished rural areas—in southwest Virginia, for example, about one in every four kids lives in poverty. But in “urban” Petersburg and Richmond, that number rises to nearly one in every three kids. And families are no less needing of food assistance when kids are home from some of the worst-performing schools in the Commonwealth. Republicans purport to be responding to a greater need in rural areas. But depending who you count and how you count, urban areas actually have more households in need than rural ones, so both areas need to be targeted, and both areas deserve the opportunity to focus on improving the number of kids these programs serve.

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Underpinning the ugliness of the debate about feeding hungry kids, in both summer and winter months, and in both urban and rural areas, is a presumption that these kids are somehow unworthy because their families are also unworthy. The urban/rural silliness is just the tip of the iceberg. Last winter, Republican Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia suggested that maybe students should have to sweep the floors before getting free lunches. In March, Paul Ryan announced that the federal government was giving hungry children “a full stomach and an empty soul.” Each time a school throws a lunch out to protect children from poverty, an angel somewhere must lose its wings.

Finally, there is the question of whether poor kids are undeserving of healthy food: When the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was signed into law by President Obama in 2010, part of the law sought to increase nutrition standards for school lunch and breakfast programs, as part of first lady Michelle Obama’s fight against childhood obesity. The law was written to take effect in 2014. So now, to get federal funding for certain food programs, school divisions need to show compliance with these nutrition goals, including more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, as recommended by the USDA.

Already, 90 percent of schools have come into compliance with these healthier nutrition standards, but the House bill would require the USDA to establish waivers to exempt school districts that claim the higher standards are too expensive and that the kids allegedly toss everything green out. Since most schools are already compliant and we know that whole grains are healthier than refined ones, these waivers aren’t really about giving schools time to get the new standards right; they’re an excuse note written by the Big Food Industry folks that will allow schools to just keep serving (or start serving again) food high in salt, sugar, fats, and every other obesity- and illness-inflaming ingredient that can be stacked onto a beige plastic tray.

And jump back, Nanny-Staters. It’s not as though these new nutrition standards are mandating a menu inspired by Goop. Science shows that the introduction of more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains makes kids healthier, and teaches lifelong lessons about healthy eating. The argument that some kids don’t eat some of the healthy foods so they should be served junk is no different than saying that kids who don’t like to read shouldn’t be allowed to borrow from school libraries.

Food is food and children are children and hungry kids are hungry kids. House Republicans can slice and dice that equation any way they want, but urban and rural kids both need to be fed, and they need to be fed during the academic year and also in summers. More urgently, all kids deserve healthy and nutritious food, not just rich ones. No matter how you do the math, the cost of childhood obesity and hungry kids is too high to bargain away a law that works.

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate. Follow her on Twitter.

Amy Woolard is a writer and public policy attorney working on statewide child welfare, juvenile justice, poverty, and homelessness issues in Virginia. Follow her on Twitter.

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