As the school year winds down, it’s not all playoffs and picnics, as poor families across America suddenly face a math challenge of their own—how to stretch an already inadequate food budget to cover summer months without school breakfast and lunch programs. According to more and more lawmakers, all these families truly need from government is a heaping plate of friendship washed down with a tall, cool glass of harsh, judgmental love. But tough as it is to manage on subsidized meals, the fact is, it’s a lot harder to manage on nothing. And there is a lot more nothing to eat for American kids today than there once was.
This week, the House of Representatives is hard at work marking up its version of an agriculture appropriations bill that sets funding levels for school and summer nutrition programs. Though the bill is currently known as the “Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act,” it’s becoming clear that if some House Republicans had their way, they would like to call it the “Hungry, Healthy-Free Kids Act.” The new object, at least in the House, is to ensure that less food, and less healthy food, finds its way to fewer kids.
The Senate version of the bill is on track to ensure that poor kids’ basic food needs continue to be met, in the summer as well as the academic year. But the House version, and the attendant debate over children and food in America, is depressing.
The agriculture bill establishes funding for some of the Department of Agriculture’s basic nutrition initiatives, like WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) and the school lunch and breakfast programs. These tend to be the rare programs in which high public approval and gut-check instincts actually match up with reality—it both feels right (WIC boasts a staggering 72 percent public approval rating) and is actually true that when families can access WIC, mothers and young children get food they can’t get elsewhere. It also makes sense and is actually true that malnourished kids face serious health and development risks, which cost the country a whole lot more in the long run. And it’s also actually true that when children have access to school breakfast and lunch programs, they get better grades and require less discipline. It’s all simple math, right? During the academic year and the summer.
But how do you solve for X when you also have to factor in the Big Food Industry’s profit margins, a belief in some circles that healthy food is a luxury, and the burgeoning claim that “urban” poverty is a “values” problem whereas “rural” poverty is just bad luck?
The House plan confounds the simple math in a few truly terrible ways:
The first one may seem like small—er—potatoes, but it would represent a significant shift if it makes it into the final package. WIC, celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, was designed to provide nutrition and breastfeeding support to low-income pregnant women and mothers of young children. It’s one of the best safety-net programs available. The qualifying “basket” of foods recipients can buy reflects years of research on what may be lacking from their diets. As it happens, white potatoes haven’t been among these recommended items—not because potatoes are unhealthy, but because they’re usually pretty well-represented in the diets of, well, most everyone in the United States already.
As you can imagine, Big Potato is not happy with that science-based, data-driven conclusion. And yes, Big Potato is a thing. And also, Big Potato is filled with well-fed lobbyists who demanded language in the agriculture bill that puts white potatoes firmly in the WIC basket, so that from now on, the data driving nutrition policies will come with dollar signs.