Why does the cost of school lunches have to be a political issue?
I'm not trying to be naive; I have written about politics. I'm fully aware of the political-related issues surrounding school lunch programs.
The current child nutrition bill that passed the House and is going through the Senate is designed to address the lack of decent funding for school lunch programs. But even this effort won't be that much improvement.
(Here is a more detailed analysis on the proposed bill.)
Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), a Blue Dog Democrat, watered down the increase in funding to 6¢ per lunch. Given that most people spend more on a drink at Starbucks than it takes to feed a child at lunchtime, this isn't much help.
Except for inflation, school lunch funding hasn't increased since 1973. And now we want to only raise it 6¢?
Someone from the outside might see the mission has been to feed our children as little nutritionally as possible, classifying tater tots and ketchup as vegetables, and as cheaply as possible.
And like most political problems these days, we can't even agree that there is a problem.
Feeding students daily nachos, donuts, and Pop-Tarts? That seems fine to some Americans. There are those who don't think that is a good idea, and are rising to complain about this.
So there are two conclusions: either we like it this way or we want to improve the situation.
Republicans aren't comfortable with the federal government running elements of education. Some in the GOP even want to abolish the Department of Education. It's clear that school lunches are caught in the middle of this.
The perception of federal funding of breakfast and school lunches being identified as "welfare" is another political football. There are those who do have plenty of food who don't always feel comfortable supporting those that don't, unless they can label those who take advantage of those deals as "welfare queens" or "welfare cheats."
But if we are going to improve school lunches, and yes, money is at the root of the solution, we have to come up with ways to raise the funds to pull this off.
Republicans (and Blue Dog Democrats) like corporate solutions to problems that those who align with the Democratic Party want to solve with government. But that could be seen as counterproductive, if lunchtime is sponsored by McDonald's and Pizza Hut.
We have seen lunchrooms that already are corporate-sponsored, as we saw in "Super Size Me." Having fast food chains literally sponsor children's lunchtime might not come across well.
Maybe if corporations provided sponsorship in the form of a grant, such as the PBS waivers. "Today's lunch is brought to you by a grant from Archer Daniels Midland, reminding you that there will be plenty of time for high-fructose corn syrup after school."
Sarcasm aside, Republicans might think that states should provide those services. But do we want a country where a child in New York or California eats that much better than a child in South Carolina?
There isn't a realistic expectation that school lunches will ever be like an Alice Waters meal in Berkeley. Kids across the country will not be served organic arugula on 7-grain toast.
However, there has to be a compromise between Froot Loops and organic arugula, something where children get nutrition that isn't laden with sodium and sugar or high-fructose corn syrup.
Studies have consistently shown that eating better and having proper recess time and time to digest lunch all lead to better educational environments for our children to learn. Jamie Oliver pointed out on "Good Morning America" last week that we are debating over $4.5 billion over 10 years for school lunches while the U.S. spends $7 billion a month in Afghanistan. We don't have to spend all $84 billion on school lunches, but a small chunk would make a difference.
Our education figures are appalling in this country. And if using money wisely is a primary concern, improving breakfast and lunch nutritional quality might be the best way to spend just a little more money.
What we need more than money is to come to an agreement that our children deserve better from school lunches and their government, and to find a way financially to make that happen.