Right-Wing Commentator on National School Lunch Program: “Let Them Eat PBJ!”

by Bettina Elias Siegel on December 23, 2010

My new fave blog Obama Foodorama has a recap of National Review columnist Mona Charen’s recent article bashing the First Lady’s school food reform efforts.

While Charen makes some good points about the troubling role of subsidized commodity food in the National School Lunch Program, her counterproposal left me agog:

Wouldn’t it make more sense, economically, nutritionally, and (importantly) socially to eliminate school lunches altogether? Parents can pack a highly nutritious turkey, tuna, or peanut-butter sandwich with an apple or an orange. Poor parents can afford to do this with help from the food stamp program. The older kids can pack their own lunches. (A child who repeatedly showed up at school without lunch would receive attention from child protective services.) Most of the parent-supervised lunches would be superior in nutrition and taste to anything the government could serve (some kids might even find an affectionate note from mom or dad in their lunch boxes). But more importantly, the principle that parents are responsible for their children would be ratified.

It’s not that I don’t understand the philosophical mindset that would want to get the federal government out of the school lunch business (although I disagree with it.)   What left me speechless was Charen’s utterly naive view of what a school cafeteria would look like absent the program.

While many American parents can (and already) provide the lovely, nutritious brown bag lunches that Ms. Charen envisions,  there’s a huge swath of families that, for economic reasons or due to a lack of parental involvement or nutrition education, would fall far short of that ideal.

As Janet Poppendieck noted in the Washington Post last week, many children who currently do not participate in the federal program get no lunch at all (4 percent of elementary students and 8 percent of high school students). Moreover, Poppendieck notes that lunches outside the federal program, whether brought from home or purchased off campus, from vending machines or school stores, are:

typically not as healthy as the school lunch that met the federal nutrition guidelines, known as the reimbursable meal. According to one recent nutrient assessment, high school students who participated in the lunch program consumed significantly greater amounts of Vitamins A and B12, calcium, potassium and other nutrients than non-participants did.

Other studies have found that kids in the national school lunch program drink more milk and eat fewer snack foods, sweets and sweetened beverages than others.

While certainly some households send carefully crafted healthy lunches, far too many children arrive at school with a brown bag containing a sweet drink and a bag of chips.

Moreover, surely Charen realizes that there’s a huge demographic that falls somewhere  between being able to afford a tuna sandwich, milk carton and orange (for each child, each day) —  and qualifying for food stamps?  For those lower-class families — battered by unemployment, rising health care costs, and other financial insecurity — the ability to obtain a nutritious (if admittedly not perfect) school lunch for free or a reduced price is crucial.

Putting aside the fact that Charen seems to be living in la-la land when it comes to the harsh realities many families face, even her political philosophy seems sadly muddled.  As ObFo blogger Eddie Gehman Kohan notes in her post:

Ensuring parental choice under Charen’s model involves plenty of Big Gov intervention, in addition to that Big Gov cash, Food Stamps.

“A child who repeatedly showed up at school without lunch would receive attention from child protective services,” Charen writes.

So let’s get this straight. School lunches and the child nutrition legislation, thanks to Mrs. Obama, are bad because they’re Big Government overriding parental choice and responsibility. But child protective services agents taking control of children whose parents can’t pack them school lunches is FINE? . . . .

There’s certainly nothing quite like a visit from someone who wants to accuse you of child abuse vis your kid’s lunchbox to “ratify” parental responsibility. . . . . The notion that child protective services agents become school cafeteria monitors–at a time when many states don’t even have enough agents to track cases of violent child abuse–is patently absurd.

By the way, when I tweeted Ms. Gehman Kohan about what could be behind Charen’s thinking, she replied:  “Suspect interior monologue was: ‘I dunno a thing about this, but Palin gets tons of press when she talks about it! Gimme!'”

Hee.

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