Trump Administration’s “Junk Food Loophole” is Symptomatic of School Privatization

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Who wants children to eat more junk food?

 

 

Apparently the Trump administration does.

 

 

This seemed to be the Department of Agriculture’s concern when it announced plans last week to further reduce regulations for healthy meals at the nation’s public schools.

 

The Department’s new scheme would change the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 to include what critics call a “junk food loophole” in meals offered at public schools – usually breakfasts and lunches.

 

Currently, sweets and fried foods are allowed only once in a while as part of a balanced meal. But this new proposal would permit them to be offered every day.

 

Students could substitute healthy choices like fruits for things like blueberry muffins and replace green vegetables with French fries.

 

 

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Source: The National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity.

 

The media rushed to characterize the changes as an attack on Michelle Obama who championed the original legislation during her husband, Barack’s, administration. And – heck – maybe they’re right seeing as the Trump administration made the proposal on Mrs. Obama’s birthday.

 

 

But one needn’t guess at political motivations behind the move when it so obviously fits the pattern of school privatization – a way of conceptualizing education supported by both the Obama’s and Trump.

 

 

Let me be clear. School cafeterias generally are not privatized. They’re usually run by local school districts. However, the insistence that such programs turn a profit and make decisions based on sales rather than nutrition are symptomatic of the privatization mindset.

 

 

We didn’t always require everything to bring in money. We used to see things like education and journalism as public goods and absolved them from the need to generate financial gain.

 

 

But that seems like a long time ago.

 

 

The current administration’s claim that it’s rolling back restrictions to stop food waste and help public schools increase lunch profits is a case in point.

 

 

If profit is king, that’s all that matters. Who cares whether kids are getting better nutrition or not? What matters is the bottom line.

 

 

School lunches are not an opportunity to teach kids better eating habits. They are a financial transaction to enrich district budgets at the expense of the children enrolled there.

 

 

If children as young as 5 can’t make that decision on their own – well, caveat emptor.

 

 

The same goes with things like charter schools and high stakes standardized tests. It doesn’t matter if these things are better or worse for children. It matters whether they make money.

 

 

The invisible hand of the market is our pedagogue in chief.

 

 

It turns out that these things are rarely – if ever – in the best interests of children. Charter schools increase the likelihood of fiscal mismanagement, school segregation, prejudicial discipline policies, cherry picking which students to enroll – all while reducing transparency and fiscal accountability. Meanwhile, high stakes testing produces assessments that more clearly illuminate parental wealth than student learning – all while creating captive markets for testing, publishing and software companies.

 

 

The “junk food loophole” is just more of the same.

 

 

The administration contends that fewer middle and upper class kids are buying lunches at school when the choices are healthier. Meanwhile, among the 30 million students who depend on free and low-cost school lunches that are subsidized by the federal government, they say more are simply throwing away healthy foods than eating them.

 

 

The administration maintains that more food would be sold and less thrown out if children were given the choice to buy more cheeseburgers and fries than carrots and yogurt.

 

 

There certainly is anecdotal evidence to support this. Kids do seem to like junk food. As a middle school teacher, I’ve seen far too many kids bring Flaming Hot Cheetos and energy drinks for breakfast than take a free box of cereal, juice or even a piece of breakfast pizza.

 

 

And the number of kids who throw away fresh fruit because they’re forced to put it on their tray is heartbreaking.

 

 

However, we tend to focus on the negative and miss the positive.

 

 

This idea that kids don’t choose healthy foods actually flies in the face of the Department of Agriculture’s own research on the effects of the Obama-era rules. In its 2019 “School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study,” the department found no significant changes in the amount of food waste since the healthier rules were put in place, and also found that the healthier choices led to more kids participating in school meal programs.

 

 

The study also found scores for the Healthy Eating Index (which measures the quality of the diet) shot up drastically from 49.6 in 2009-2010 to 71.3 in 2014-2015.

 

 

So there is evidence that the program is actually increasing students’ healthy eating.

 

 

If we valued what’s best for children, we would continue – and maybe even strengthen – the legislation.

 

 

However, this newest proposal to weaken the law is the second time in three years that the federal government has undercut this policy.

 

 

In 2018, the Department started allowing schools to stop offering foods lower in sodium and higher in whole-grains.

 
That decision is being challenged in court by a coalition of six states and Washington, DC, on the grounds that it endangers student health.

 

If this second set of rollbacks are implemented, they too may be challenged in court.

 
Unfortunately the problem isn’t limited to mealtimes.

 

 

This is indicative of the school privatization mindset.

 

 

We must stop allowing the profit principle to function as the arbiter of sound academic policy.

 

 

Reducing regulations requiring healthy foods in schools is a bad idea. But so are charter schools, high stakes testing, Common Core, runaway ed tech and a host of other market-based school policies.

 

 

We can’t continue to ignore what’s best for children in the name of rampant consumerism.

 

 

The purpose of school is to teach children – not to exploit them as a captive market for financial gain.

 


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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

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Just 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.’ But 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. So 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.

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 Republicans 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?

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.

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.