HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas

Lunchtime for the President

President Trump does not hate government –not at all. He inherited a nest egg from a father who used government subsidies to build an empire of middle-income apartments in New York. The president used the tax code to avoid paying taxes. He knows that government can be good for him.

But he doesn’t want government to help anybody else. So, either to protect taxpayers, or limit government, or promote private-sector efficiency (the banner will change with the audience), he is slashing programs that will not spark a moneyed constituency of outrage.

Poor children are an easy target.

Poor children line up each midday at school for their federally-subsidized lunch. From an early age, these children are on the dole, dependent on government. As Paul Ryan noted, subsidies such as this create “full stomachs and empty souls.” (“Revenge of the Lunch Lady,” Jane Black, Huffington Post.)

Maybe that will end – their stomachs will be empty; and, presumably, their souls full of self-reliance.

The school lunch program is ideal for decimation. It costs $11.7 billion. It helps 31 million children each year, but most hale from poor families (or, in conservatives’ ideology, families too lax to provide nutritious meals). It has long angered nutritionists. In this glorious springtime when gardens sprout with peas, lettuce and strawberries, our school lunches often sprout with French fries and chicken nuggets. Many middle-class children in suburban schools spurn “the fed.” With few vocal supporters, this program is ripe for slaughter.

Onlookers fear slaughter.

Lunches in schools did not begin with President Obama – the bete noire of government spending in our President’s mind. During the Depression, a grab-bag of agencies — the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, the Civil Works Administration, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, and the Public Works Administration — helped local districts provide lunches. The Surplus Commodities Corporation gave farmers an outlet for surplus food. In that long ago time, many children, especially in rural America, were starving-to-malnourished. “Government” had committed itself to feeding children.

World War II ended the food subsidies, ended the WPA.

With the war over, in 1946 Congress set into legislative cement the National School Lunch Program. President Truman signed the bill. The bill had many fathers: the military had seen the deplorable physical status of too many draftees; it wanted healthier recruits for the next war. Farmers once again had surplus products. Communities looked forward to employing the lunch personnel. And the children were waiting to eat.

Over 70 years, the school lunch program, along with the country, changed. The original legislation authorized the government to give communities cash and food. But over time, poorer communities did not get enough food, or cash, to feed all their students. In response, school districts charged children whose parents could afford to pay. Yet the key constituency – poor children who needed the meal – was left hungry. By 1968, only one-third of poor children benefited. The government response: a three-tiered payment system: depending on income, children get free lunch, partially subsidized lunch, or pay almost the full cost. At the same time, school districts embraced cheap food – the processed puffs and patties children were often eating at home. In 1984 President Reagan cut the budget by 25%. Districts allowed the sale of “competitive foods” outside lunch, like cookies.

Fast forward to 2010. Americans no longer suffered from insufficient calories, but from a surfeit of calories. “Processed” food requires little cooking; and we, a nation of eaters, have glommed onto pizza, French fries, chicken nuggets, as well as sodas. Many school lunches featured high-calorie, high-sodium processed hunks of something edible that fit schools’ budgets. At the same time, the three-tiered pricing system was cumbersome to administer, and stigmatized poor children.

Congress’s response: the Community Eligibility Program (CEP). It added an extra $4.5 billion to the program. It raised the nutritional standards of lunches – a difficult task. (When regulators wanted to limit potatoes in favor of vegetables, the nation’s potato growers blocked the change.) And, crucially, schools serving mostly poor children could serve everybody lunch, without distinguishing levels of poverty. Michelle Obama can take a bow.

The CEP is vulnerable: it may go under President Trump’s chopping block.

Rep. Ryan describes the insidious result of serving children free lunch. The charge is ironic, since, looking at our Washington solons, including the President, I see a horde of adults with full stomachs, empty souls.

Joan Retsinas is a sociologist who writes about health care in Providence, R.I. Email

From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2017

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