Nearly half of America’s children live in low-income and poor families, and the majority of public school students qualify for free breakfast and lunch programs. Nearly 30 million children — more than the population of Texas — benefit from the National School Lunch Program.
In low-income households, it’s often food that gets sacrificed to pay rent, utilities, and health bills. Parents or older siblings will go without so the youngest can eat. Or cheap non-nutritious food may be the only affordable option.
School lunch programs, linked to household income and eligibility to receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (known as SNAP, or food stamps), have been critical for feeding kids. And the Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act, which enjoyed bipartisan support when it passed in 2010, has made school lunches healthier by reducing sodium and saturated fats, and adding whole grains.
However, the Trump administration began a rollback of the nutrition standards in the Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act over a year ago. And now, as part of a proposed new rule that would knock 3 million struggling families off SNAP, over half a million children would lose access to the free and reduced lunch program.
There’s virtually no debate that kids need nutritious food to stay healthy and learn at school. Numerous and broad studies have shown that school meal programs reduce obesity, poor health and food insecurity.
So one might wonder why politicians would want to literally take healthy food out of the mouths of hungry school children. Great question.
The rollback of nutrition standards, for starters, appears to be a naked giveaway to the dairy industry, which complained that their profits were affected when school meals started cutting back on saturated fat.
For the school lunch cuts, the Trump administration is using the phony justification that SNAP is rife with fraud. In reality, advocates say SNAP has the most rigorous standards of any federal program. Less than 1 percent of SNAP spending is estimated to be fraudulent — likely much lower than the Pentagon, which can’t pass an audit, yet whose far bigger budget Trump keeps increasing.
This proposed rule change seems a barely veiled attempt to take more money from effective safety net programs for those in need — while no expense is spared to ensure the extremely wealthy get tax breaks.
Since the proposed rule change has been opened for the mandatory 60-day public comment period, over 4,000 people have weighed in strongly opposed.
“If you are human, please continue to feed other humans,” writes Houston, Texas resident Kaura Webb. Former school teacher Barbara McCarty from Palm Desert California says, “Do NOT diminish this vital program for OUR families in need. As a former school teacher and mother, I know personally how important nutrition is for young minds to grow.”
Seventy mayors also sent a letter to the Trump administration chastising it for this proposed change.
They point out that “this far reaching executive action will escalate food insecurity and hunger for an estimated 3.1 million individuals — including children, seniors, and people with disabilities.” It will also “put children’s health and development at risk” and “harm our economy by reducing the amount of SNAP dollars available to spur regional and local economic activity.”
As children head back to school this year, at the very least they deserve access to hot and nutritious meals. It’s a moral imperative. There should be no other choice in the wealthiest country in the world.
Karen Dolan directs the Criminalization of Race and Poverty Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.