Dropping Out of School Lunches

An Arizona state senator is sponsoring a bill to allow public schools to opt out of the federal school lunch program.

As reported in AZCentral.com:

“A bill introduced by Sen. Rich Crandall, R-Mesa, would allow schools to drop out of the National School Lunch Program.

The federal program gives public schools money and food and requires them to serve nutritionally balanced meals. Children whose families fall below certain income thresholds qualify for free lunch or lunch at a reduced price.

Arizona has a state law that requires K-8 district schools to participate in the program, although high schools and charter schools are exempt.

Crandall said the idea behind the legislation, Senate Bill 1061, is to make sure all schools are treated the same.”

The article also stated that Crandall’s motivation behind this bill was based on a worry that new federal lunch requirements will hurt schools financially.

When asked about how poor kids would fare under this bill, Senator Crandall  pointed out that children who attend schools that scrap the school lunch program may have to change schools if they need free lunches.

While we may feel some sympathy that actually serving healthy food to kids may cost a bit more for Arizona’s already cash strapped schools, the idea of passing legislation to allow for the elimination of those meals altogether is a prime example of throwing the baby out with the bath water.

It has also been revealed that Senator Crandall is the president of a company that oversees USDA child-nutrition programs on behalf of state agencies but he has stated, “If I were looking for a benefit, I would never run a bill to allow people to opt out of the school lunch program.”

So  In case you are as baffled as I was as to why a senator with obvious ties to school lunches appears to be trying to eliminate them, let me explain.

It all goes back to the new government regulations that are being mandated to make school lunches healthier, including serving fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products.  Along with this requirement, there is a six cent increase per lunch allocated to cover the additional costs of the lunches.  Obviously Crandall isn’t pleased with this amount and it can only be surmised that his goal is to eliminate the federal school lunch programs in the state, which opens the door for lunch providers to go in as a cheaper alternative to serve less healthy foods to kids.

After all, who needs fruits and veggies when Tater Tots and corn dogs will do?

But of course schools could also choose to opt out of any kind of free lunches altogether as this bill is presently written, though the head of the largest teachers’ union in the state wants language inserted that will require free lunches to be served to qualifying students in public schools that opt out of the National School Lunch Program—with the local taxpayer instead of the federal government picking up the tab.

This bill’s irony is further emphasized by the fact that Arizona is in the top five states where children are going hungry.  According to an important new study by Feeding America and reported by ABC News, childhood hunger is a stunning reality in the US with over 17 million, or one in four children currently suffering from food insecurity.  Food insecurity is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as lack of food availability in sufficient quantities on a consistent basis, lack of access to food for a nutritious diet, and lack of appropriate knowledge of basic nutrition and care.

With the proposed federal budget cuts to other food aid programs like WIC, millions of our children are simply going without food during their important developmental years.  With younger children affected by a slowing in cognitive development and older kids unable to concentrate on their work,  childhood hunger leads to poor academic outcomes.  In other words, dropping out of a school lunch program has a very real potential to increase the dropout rate in schools.

On the other side of the food insecurity equation is the fact that many kids are not eating good foods.  Food deserts, defined as “A community in which residents must travel at least a mile to buy fresh meat, dairy products, and vegetables,”  exist in most cities and rural areas.  There are a whopping 23.5 million Americans living in food deserts who can only obtain and afford foods that are loaded with fat, sugar and highly processed ingredients.  Whether food deserts or just poor food choices are at fault, childhood obesity is rampant and many formerly adult diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol are now afflicting young people in epidemic proportions.  This carries enormous costs both to a child’s quality of life and to our healthcare system.

So any way you look at this, whether from a viewpoint of healthy lunches, unhealthy lunches or no lunches at all, this bill has all the makings of a cynical attempt on the part of one politician to maintain a status quo in poor nutritional choices for schoolchildren or– even worse– no food choice at all.   Furthermore, claims by Senator Crandall that kids who need free school lunches should simply seek out schools that provide them ominously smacks of school segregation based on economic need.

An obvious solution to higher costs of school lunches is to simply apply a fraction of the $600 million budget surplus that Governor Brewer has recently bragged about towards providing free nutritionally balanced lunches to all low-income children in public schools.

But somehow I don’t think that idea is going to fly in Arizona’s republican-held legislature.