A modest proposal for Congress: Ditch the extra funding for school lunch
First Lady Michelle Obama is reportedly wrestling with at least 100 House Democrats who would rather not pass a re-authorization of the nation’s school meals program if it means taking money from food stamp recipients.
The Senate approved the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which would increase spending on child nutrition programs by $4.5 billion — including a 6-cent-per-meal boost to the rate the federal government reimburses school lunch — but said the only way to fund it without adding to the deficit was to remove $2.2 billion from the food stamp (now known as SNAP) program. Re-authorization of the Child Nutrition Act must now be approved by the House before authorization for the legislation currently in place expires.
The Senate’s funding method is a bit like picking the pocket of one panhandler to put it in the hand of another. Yet the mainstream media has hailed these measly 6 cents as the first increase in the subsidized lunch reimbursement rate in three decades — a false notion.
Apparently, no one in the press has actually bothered to read the rules governing the school meals program. If they had, they’d know that the disputed 6 cents are barely more than what the National School Lunch Program receives automatically each year by way of cost of living increases. This year, in fact, the reimbursement rate has already gone up 4 cents — from $2.68 per lunch to $2.72 — thanks to an adjustment in the Consumer Price Index.
Granted, school kitchens are broke and have been for a long time. According to the School Nutrition Association, schools that rely on the federal reimbursements to pay their expenses lose 35 cents on average with every lunch they serve, which helps explain why they feed kids sweetener-stuffed snacks instead of real food in order to comply with the USDA’s calorie requirements.
The 6 cent increase would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic. But more important in this stalled legislation is a provision that would, for the first time, give the USDA authority to regulate all foods sold in schools, possibly meaning an end — finally — to so-called “competitive foods,” such as sugary drinks and candy in school vending machines and ice cream bars and fruit rollups in the deli line. That would go a long way toward addressing the obesity epidemic that Michelle Obama has pledged to end.
So I say, Keep your 6 cents. Let the nation’s lunch ladies do what they’ve been doing for years that Congress can’t — live with what they’ve got. Congress can then continue doing what it does best — spending money we don’t have on wars we don’t need. Somehow, the kids will survive.
Get Grist in your inbox