Does Eating a Free School Lunch Give Kids “an Empty Soul?”

The following blog post originally appeared on the author’s GadflyOnTheWallBlog.

U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Paul RyanJust about everyone admits the importance of eating lunch – especially for growing kids in school.

But if you get that lunch for free, does it leave you with “a full stomach and an empty soul”?

Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Paul Ryan thinks so.

He famously made these remarks at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference:

“Take Obamacare—not literally, but figuratively here OK? We now know that this law will discourage millions of people from working. The Left thinks this is a good thing. They say, ‘hey, this is a new freedom – the freedom not to work.’ I don’t think the problem is too many people are working. I think the problem is not enough people can find work. And if people leave the workforce, our economy will shrink. There will be less opportunity, not more. The Left is making a big mistake here. What they’re offering people is a full stomach and an empty soul. The American people want more than that.”

So, for Ryan, having affordable healthcare somehow has discouraged people from working. He seems to think there are millions of poor people out there who could get a job but have decided not to because their medical bills are too low.

Really, Mr. Ryan?

It’s preposterous. Most poor people are working several minimum wage jobs just to get by. Very few people are sitting at home on the public dole, and those that are need help to find jobs, as he admits. They need help finding better jobs that pay higher wages. They need help getting the skills and training necessary to get those jobs. And they need for those jobs to actually exist! They don’t need condemnation or starvation to motivate them.

If Republican leaders like Ryan had offered a single jobs bill, perhaps such remarks would be excusable. If they had offered an alternative to Obamacare, likewise it might be excusable. In the absence of those things, his comments seem to be nothing more than a thinly veiled excuse for doing nothing to help the less fortunate.

But Ryan goes on:

“This reminds me of a story I heard from Eloise Anderson. She serves in the cabinet of my friend Governor Scott Walker. She once met a young boy from a poor family. And every day at school, he would get a free lunch from a government program. But he told Eloise he didn’t want a free lunch. He wanted his own lunch—one in a brown-paper bag just like the other kids. He wanted one, he said, because he knew a kid with a brown-paper bag had someone who cared for him.”

There are several problems with these remarks. First of all, Anderson later admitted that it never happened. She never met a boy who said this. She got the whole thing from The Invisible Thread by Laura Schroff, either from the book itself or a TV interview about the book.

Second, Anderson’s cherry picking this example from the book goes completely against what the author was trying to say. The book is the true story of a business executive and an 11-year-old homeless boy who partnered together with an organization called No Kid Hungry to fight child hunger. One key part of the program is connecting hungry kids with federal programs such as school lunches and food stamps. The group also opposed Ryan’s 2013 budget for its proposed reductions in the food stamp program. In short, Schroff was trying to show how important it was to provide free lunches to students – not that we should let them go hungry. Using Schroff’s book to justify cutting school lunch programs is like using Nelson Mandela’s autobiography as a justification for apartheid.

Getting a free lunch doesn’t mean no one cares for you. On the contrary, it means that everyone does, that your community has pitched in to make sure you are fed.

Many politicians and media talking heads refuse to see the realities of modern American life. Deregulation of the banking and corporate sector along with outsourcing and rampant union busting have resulted in an economy where most of the good paying jobs are gone. This puts a tremendous strain on our education system. As a result, more than half of public school students live below the poverty line. But how to meet their needs without stigmatizing kids for circumstances beyond their control?

The Community Solutionkids eat school lunch

Many communities around the country including my own, have stepped up with a solution. For the last two years, hundreds of districts throughout my state of Pennsylvania and throughout the nation have offered free lunches to all of their students regardless of family income. Rich kids, poor kids, all kids eat for free. Though students can still bring a lunch from home, having the option to eat at school removes the dichotomy of brown bags vs. cafeteria lunches. All are the same.

The program, called the Community Eligibility Provision, is available nationwide as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act passed in 2010. Its goal is to provide healthy lunches and breakfasts to millions of students nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Previously only low-income students or students from families receiving federal assistance received free breakfasts and lunches.

Now, only 40 percent of a single school or an entire district’s population must come from families receiving federal assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and/or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). They may also be homeless or come from foster homes. Once that 40 percent threshold is reached, all students receive free lunch and breakfast. Districts are compensated by the state and federal government.

Before this program, providing school lunches, even at cost, was a losing proposition. Most districts end the year with students owing them large sums for lunches. For instance, two years ago, $25,000 of debt remained with Pittsburgh schools because some students didn’t pay for their meals.

Districts could stop letting these children eat the school lunch, but no one wants to refuse a child a meal. Under the previous system, the extra cost for unpaid lunches and the cost to complete mountains of paperwork involved in collecting the money was put on the backs of local taxpayers. Under this new program, all of this disappears. Moreover, we create a community of children who are better fed and thus better ready for the demands of school.

And mark my words, this IS helping kids become better prepared for class.

Tastes Great, More Filling

As a teacher, I used to have to buy snacks and meals for my students. I had a drawer full of Ramen noodles for children who came to me hungry. Many kids suffer from food insecurity but don’t qualify for SNAP. This program solves that problem.

My own second grade daughter has never known anything else but this system. Though I can afford to pay or pack her a lunch, she prefers to eat what her friends are eating. My wife and I are often baffled that she’ll try new foods at school that she would never give a chance had we made them at home.

And the food is actually pretty good. It’s not gourmet, but it’s better than what you’d get at most fast food restaurants. I even eat it myself from time-to-time. I have to pay two bucks, but it’s still a bargain. I particularly like the baked chicken.

People complain about new federal guidelines that have made school lunches healthier, but what they’ve really done is made them better. Whole grain bread and buns taste pretty much the same and are better for you. Using less salt and grease is better all around.

I’ve even noticed the kids learning new things about food from the increased menu. When all this began, I remember many of the middle schoolers expressing disgust at the chicken because it was in whole pieces. They had only seen chicken in nugget form.

Now kids will walk up to the cafeteria ladies and ask to try this or that. Many times they discover something new that they like. It’s really cool to see. Even their manners have improved.

Just today little 5th graders were remarking at how soft and delicious the croissant was on the breakfast sandwich. They had never seen a bun like that before. I literally heard comments like “delicious” and “mouth-watering.”

That’s incredibly high praise for children. Sure some of them still find the food is disgusting, but they are in the minority.

Do the kids who eat these lunches have “an empty soul”?

No, that’s just Paul Ryan.

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One Response to Does Eating a Free School Lunch Give Kids “an Empty Soul?”

  1. drakestraw January 10, 2017 at 10:27 pm #

    Steven, much as I like your blog, and agree with you 90% of the time, I have to say that the program isn’t nearly as successful at my school. Yes, my district is part of the program, and it seems like a win to me, but the kids complain bitterly about the food. Most kids pick fries, pizza, burgers, and nachos. Of course, I am in a large high school, and it’s not cool to say you might like the food, and there are always Taquis or Hot Cheetahs available somewhere in the building. But I like the fact the kids are able to make the choice to eat or not to eat. Breakfast is a little better – kids get a milk or juice, some cereal, and a yogurt or string cheese. They get to leave the cafeteria with it (which means we find sour milk all over), so they’ll grab a bag and go find their friends. Many of us still find it necessary to supplement, however, with granola bars or peanut butter/crackers, etc. Some of the kids have lunch at 10 AM and don’t leave until 3:10….kind of a long stint without a pick me up.

    Oh, and I frequently buy lunch in the cafeteria ($3, not $2) and some is really quite good. Kids hate it when I tell them I’m eating what they have and like it.

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