To save my sanity, I’ve been trying lately (with mixed success) to disengage a bit from political news, so I wasn’t closely following last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). But over the weekend, I noticed a flurry of tweets referring to some kind of threat made at CPAC by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos regarding the school lunch program.
Alarmed, I drilled down and learned that DeVos had opened her CPAC speech by introducing herself this way:
“I’m Betsy DeVos. You may have heard some of the wonderful things the mainstream media has called me lately. I, however, pride myself on being called a mother, a grandmother, a life partner, and perhaps the first person to tell Bernie Sanders to his face that there’s no such thing as a free lunch.”
Almost as soon as DeVos stepped away from the podium, opinion pieces started popping up online with titles like:
- “Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos Questions If Schools Should Provide Free Lunch;”
- “Betsy DeVos is in charge of a system that literally serves millions of free lunches;”
- “Should Schools Provide Free Lunch? DeVos Could End Nutrition Program for Poor Kids;” and
- “Actually, Betsy DeVos, There Is Such a Thing as a Free Lunch“
The thrust of all of these pieces is that DeVos had just revealed her intent to gut the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), which offers “free lunch” (as well as lunch at a reduced price) to 21 million low-income children. These articles were then widely shared on Twitter, typically with expressions of outrage over DeVos’s remarks and sometimes with calls to action.
As someone who’s long advocated for protecting and strengthening the NSLP, I love that there are so many writers, advocates and Twitter users out there willing to immediately jump to the program’s defense. That said, I think everyone needs to step back for a second and take a deep breath.
“There’s no such thing as a free lunch” is an expression that’s been around since the 1930s, and “free lunch” here refers to the nineteenth century practice of offering bar patrons a free meal to drive liquor sales. So it means, in other words, that “you can’t get something for nothing.” When DeVos used the expression at CPAC, she was referring to an exchange that took place with Senator Bernie Sanders during her confirmation hearing, in which Sanders asked if she supported his proposal for tuition-free public college education and she replied: “I think we also have to consider the fact that there’s nothing in life that is truly free — somebody is going to pay for it.”
It’s clear, then, that DeVos wasn’t talking about school meals at CPAC. Even so, it’s entirely possible that this staunch proponent of limited government would happily scrap the entire school meal program if she could. But here’s some good news for concerned advocates: she doesn’t have that power. Contrary to the inaccurate headlines listed above, neither DeVos nor the Department of Education oversees the NSLP. The program’s administration is the responsibility of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and its funding is left up to Congress.
So instead of worrying about DeVos, we really should be focusing on: (1) Congressional Republicans, who’ve already shown great enthusiasm for weakening the nutrition standards for school meals and limiting their accessibility to low-income kids (see my Civil Eats piece, “3 Things You Need to Know About the House School Food Bill“); (2) the as-yet-unscheduled confirmation hearing for Agriculture Secretary nominee Sonny Perdue, during which we’re likely to get more information on how he views the NSLP; and (3) whoever eventually is appointed Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, the USDA official directly in charge of child nutrition programs. There’s also the wild card of Ivanka Trump, who has the ear of her father and may – or may not – be a supporter of child nutrition.
In other words, the NSLP will likely need our vigorous and vociferous support in the coming days. But until then, let’s keep our powder dry – and be ready to mobilize when the time is right.
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