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The Republican party is a threat to school lunches for hungry kids

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Across the country, kids are returning to school. Though many undoubtedly arrive with mixed emotions about the end of summer, for too many kids summer months are marked in part by food insecurity.

The school year at least offers the promise of food thanks to the school lunch program. Though Paul Ryan once described the National School Lunch Program as offering kids a full stomach and an empty soul, the program remains in place. At least for the moment poor kids returning to school do not need to worry that they might not be able to afford lunch.

It is not as if Republicans do not recognize the connection between hunger and academic success. As Paul Ryan’s 2016 “Poverty, Opportunity, and Upward Mobility” Report notes, “[a] high-quality education is one of the best paths to a brighter future, but students cannot learn and succeed in class if they are hungry or lack proper nutrition.”

{mosads}But such rhetoric aside, if Republicans in Congress have their way, the guarantees of the National program are in grave risk. The same report argues for replacing school lunch program — and many other social programs — with block grants to states.


Under the banner of flexibility and greater authority to states, Republicans in 2016 sought to cap spending on the school lunch program in three states. Doing so would have amounted to a dangerous gamble that the number of poor kids needing food assistance during the block grant period would not rise.

Perhaps the biggest danger of block granting the school lunch program is not that the states would not have funding to respond should more of their students need help, but that, by providing “flexibility” to states, block grants almost guarantee that states will divert funds away from poor, hungry kids.

As Professor Daniel Hatcher’s recent book, The Poverty Industry, demonstrates, states are all too eager to divert federal block grants originally meant to help the poor into their general state budget.

To some extent this issue seems dated — politics these days are dominated by questions of whether President Trump is a Nazi sympathizer and whether there might be a nuclear war with North Korea. But as the school year starts, it is worth celebrating the fact that Republicans have not yet succeeded in undermining a program originally signed into law by President Truman more than sixty years ago.

There are changes that should be made in the way schools feed children. It is almost unbelievable that schools still publicly shame kids for owing or not having enough money in their meal accounts. And American school lunches could be much healthier, as they are in some other countries. Michelle Obama tried to improve things, but in May the Trump administration reversed course on some of her efforts to improve school lunch nutrition.

More fundamentally, the willingness of Republicans to attack a long-standing program to feed hungry kids and related effort to pass food stamp reform modeled on welfare reform suggests that nothing is off limits. In July, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) argued that cuts to food stamps could help pay for Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico.

Republican members of Congress are not all as heartless as Rep. Steve King, but they share a collective hope that by weathering the Trump twitter and press conference-driven roller-coaster they will be able to radically reform the political landscape.

Their attack on the Affordable Care Act failed, but unfortunately the school lunch and food stamp programs are arguably more vulnerable. The Republican budget clearly shows the party’s priorities, but most school kids cannot vote and can hardly be expected to lobby against bills that on their face merely favor state over federal administration of school lunch programs.

It is up to adults to push back against efforts to undermine this crucial part of the social safety-net. There are lots of moving parts in the Trump era, each of which seems to demand our full attention and to evoke new outrage, but it is important to that little things — like ensuring kids do not go hungry — do not get lost in the madness. Only by paying attention can we make sure that poor students going to school next year can also expect to be able to eat.

Ezra Rosser is a law professor at American University Washington College of Law. You can follow him on Twitter @EzraRosser.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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