“No Free Lunch”

By Jennifer Rutledge

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This past February, new Secretary of Education Betsy Devos famously joked at the Conservative Political Action Conference that she was there to tell Bernie Sanders that there was no such thing a free lunch.  

Four days ago, the White House Budget director made general announcements about the necessity of cutting funding to child feeding programs, calling them wasteful expenditures that do not demonstrate positive effects of improving school performance.

But child feeding and school lunch programs are far more complicated that the current Republican administration would like to admit. The first scientific article linking child nutrition to academic performance was published in The Lancet in 1883.And this fact has been proven over and over again and is the basis for a number of school feeding programs in the developing world. So this notion that there is no proof that school meals improve academic performance is hogwash.  (This 2017 article contains further supporting evidence of this connection).

However, and I think this is important in the context of this budget proposal – improving academic performance is NOT why the United States created the school lunch program. We created the school lunch program in order to help provide a steady market for farmers and to improve national security (as something like 3 out of every 5 soldiers drafted for WWII couldn’t be drafted due to childhood nutritional deficiencies). And it’s actually for those two reasons that the school meal program will likely continue to exist – Republicans might not care about feeding kids but they do care about not pissing off agri-business (which is heavily invested in school lunches/breakfasts) and they do care about the military – and the military continues to be a huge supporter of school meals.

I might be wrong. But knowing the history and knowing the powerful constituencies (because let’s be honest, the poor and children are not a powerful constituency) at least allows us to analyze and perhaps frame this issue more successfully.

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