The Hungry, Healthy-Free Kids Act

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

Urban and rural kids both need to be fed (preferably healthfully), and they need to be fed during the academic year and also in summers

Photo by Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

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.

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.

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.