Let’s consider school lunches.
Always an important topic. But to be honest, it’s only coming up right now thanks to Rep. Paul Ryan, who took a strong, principled stand against school lunches in a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference. (“What they’re offering people is a full stomach and an empty soul.”)
Ryan’s point was that mothers who pack their children’s lunches are showing their love, while kids who get their food from the cafeteria will feel nobody cares. Have you ever heard a more terrible thing to say?
Most American mothers work, and they are already guilt-ridden over everything under the sun. They are constantly hearing stories about some other woman who has six kids and manages a major corporation yet still finds time to sew a sequin-crusted mermaid costume for the 8-year-old’s Halloween parade. Most American mothers feel remarkably successful when everybody gets off to school with matching socks. Now Paul Ryan wants to tell them they’ve committed child abuse by failure to fill a brown bag.
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Fortunately, the speech ended badly: Ryan included a story about a poor boy begging for a home-packed lunch, which turned out to be rather fictional. But it was still an interesting window into the right’s growing antipathy toward school meals.
School lunches have always been political, in a peculiar agricultural way. The frozen food lobby takes on the fresh produce people. The tomato growers do battle with nutritionists who don’t want to count pizza as a vegetable.
But the idea of providing healthy subsidized meals for public school students used to be universally accepted. Like Social Security, or federally funded bridge reconstruction.
No more. These days, you can find vocal opposition to any federal program that gives something to poor people. Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia, who’s running for the Republican Senate nomination, has been arguing that kids who qualify for subsidized school meals should be required to do janitorial work in order to demolish the idea “that there is such a thing as a free lunch.”
Then there’s that vision of the hand-packed meal as a symbol of Family. Every once in a while, a rumor crops up that an elementary school somewhere is prohibiting brown bags and forcing all its students to eat Obamafare. This does not actually seem to be happening.
Finally, there’s the rancor toward the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which Congress passed in 2010 with the strong backing of Michelle Obama. Its push toward healthier school menus is a popular target with the right. In theory, this is a rejection of federal interference with local decision-making. But, mainly, I suspect, it’s an attempt to remind average Americans that the first lady gets up to work out at 4:30 a.m. and probably does not approve of some of their lifestyle choices.
Plus, it’s always easy to make fun of kale. Los Angeles schools, which were trailblazers, got no end of grief for their rather abrupt transition from chocolate milk and chicken nuggets to a menu that was heavy on things like vegetable curry and lentils.
“School kids in Los Angeles have blown the whistle on the east wing chef-in-chief’s healthy lunch diktats,” announced columnist Michelle Malkin triumphantly.
David Binkle of the Los Angeles Unified School District says that after a rather rocky shakedown, things are going great and student food sales are way up.
“And we don’t even have pizza on the menu,” he said.
The kids are drinking more milk than ever, even without chocolate flavoring. The lentils are still there, Binkle said, but they tend to be hidden away in salads.
We’ll be hearing more complaints soon; the second phase of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act kicks in this year, and it includes bans on snacks like candy bars, Doritos or sugary soft drinks, even in vending machines. Gone from the cafeteria forever.
Unless your mother packs them in a brown paper bag.