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Kathleen Parker on School Food: It's All the Feminists' Fault

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SCHOOL LUNCH
Baerbel Schmidt via Getty Images

Last Friday, conservative Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker wrote an editorial praising the School Nutrition Association's (SNA) current attempts to roll back the nutritional improvements of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA), derisively referring to the legislation as "the first lady's well-intentioned but disastrous school nutrition program, otherwise known as the Dumpster Derby."

In this regard, Parker is no different from any other conservative pundit or Republican House member persuaded by the SNA's reports of increased food waste and student rejection of healthier food (reports strongly disputed by many respected school food service directors) to justify a return to daily pizza and fries.

But where Parker really made my head spin is her apparent belief that the entire National School Lunch Program is in place because mothers -- specifically feminist mothers -- just can't be bothered to pack a nutritious lunch from home. To wit:

Obama is merely expanding her maternal focus to include all those public school kids whose mothers apparently have forgotten how to make a sandwich. Or whose fathers have forgotten to say, "Get those plugs out of your ears and make friends with the lawn mower" -- or whatever its urban equivalent.

... and this is where I wish this debate were heading -- Mrs. Obama could suggest that parents prepare their children's meals.

What?! You've got to be kidding! We're too busy!!

Since when were we too busy to scramble an egg or toast a slice of bread? Since the national narrative of women's liberation concentrated on the kitchen as metaphor for homebound drudgery and oppression, that's when.

Parker does give a throwaway nod to poor people -- "When it comes to home food preparation, the very poor need extra help, obviously" -- but then reasserts the notion that "quality nutrition, as most important things, begins at home."

So, in sum, Parker apparently believes that the vast majority of children participating in the NSLP come from stable, two-parent households (replete with fancy electronics, lawns, lawn mowers and well-stocked kitchens) and if only mom's pretty little head hadn't been muddled by those pesky feminists, those children would all be heading out the door with a nutritious, home-packed lunch.

I'm so dumbfounded by this thinking, I don't quite know what to say.

Let's start with a simple recitation of the facts:

  • According to the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) the latest USDA data indicate that 15.8 million (21.6 percent) children live in households "facing a constant struggle against hunger." And "in Gallup surveys taken between 2008 and 2012, 23.5 percent of households with children responded that there were times in the past year when they did not have enough money to buy food that they needed."
  • On a typical school day in 2011-12, 19.6 million children, or a full 68 percent of those participating in school meals, received free or reduced price lunches, and that figure has since increased. To qualify for free lunches this past year, a family of four must be living at 130 percent of the poverty level, or earning no more than $30,615.  To receive reduced price lunch, a family of four must be earning between $30,615 and $43,568.*
  • One significant gain brought about by the HHFKA is that districts can now "directly certify" the very neediest children for free and reduced price meals, without the need for paperwork, if these children are "homeless, runaway, and migrant children and children from households that receive benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), or the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR)."  In the 2012-13 school year, 12.3 million children met one or more of these criteria and received direct certification.
And even the SNA, on which Parker happily relies in dismissing the need for healthier school food, fully recognizes the critical role of the NSLP in feeding America's hungry children.  In its 2008 report, "Saved By The Lunch Bell: As Economy Sinks, School Nutrition Program Participation Rises," the SNA wrote:

The school nutrition programs are more important than ever, as more students participate in the free and reduced price categories. Nationwide, school nutrition programs serve as safety nets for families that are facing financial difficulties as the economy falters.

In other words, children fortunate enough to have moms who could easily pack a nutritious lunch (but for their feminist ideology) are not the intended beneficiaries of the NSLP. Instead, the program is intended to serve the millions of impoverished American children whose parents cannot send them to school with a home-packed lunch for a whole host of possible reasons that never seem to cross Parker's mind: the family's SNAP benefits fail to cover a month's worth of healthful food, in light of today's rising food costs; there is only one parent in the household and he or she works one or more jobs and is not home to pack a lunch; one or both caretakers are drug-addicted, mentally ill, physically disabled or otherwise unable to adequately provide for their children; the family lives in a homeless shelter and lacks access to kitchen facilities; the family lives in a food desert where healthful groceries are scarce, etc.

These are not families, in other words, in which mom is just too focused on her career at a high-powered law firm to get out the peanut butter and jelly each morning. And when it comes to these children, who are so dependent on school meals for daily nutrition, it's incontestable that they are better served by the HHFKA's healthier school food mandates than by the SNA's current desire to return to foods higher in white flour and sodium, fruits and vegetables that kids are able to spurn on a daily basis, and school snack bars replete with pizza and fries.

But maybe Parker's Leave it to Beaver thinking should come as no surprise.  Back in 2011 on The Lunch Tray, I took issue with another Parker Washington Post editorial, this one arguing that the federal government should have no role in solving the obesity crisis. Parker once again harkened back to some earlier, simpler time, and concluded that, "[a]s with most problems, the solution is family:"

Ma would say: "Sit up and eat your vegetables." Pa said: "Don't talk with your mouth full."

Other common utterances included: "Go outside and play." And, "After you finish your chores."

Families may not have been happier... but neither were the words "childhood obesity" part of the vernacular.

That's right.  The historic rise in childhood obesity has absolutely nothing to do with: federal corn subsidies which unnaturally render junk food and fast food the cheaper option for many consumers; the food industry's intense focus on making junk food hyper-palatable; the almost $2 billion spent each year to aggressively market junk food to kids: the growing ubiquity of junk food in outlets which formerly never sold food (Michael's craft stores, fabric stores, car washes, etc.); or a host of other factors. It's just that Ma and Pa are no longer dispensing their homespun wisdom to little Jimmy and Sally around the dinner table.

I'll say one thing for Parker's world view:  it's certainly seductive in its simplicity. Instead of having to attack the multiple root causes of two entrenched societal ills, childhood obesity and childhood hunger, we just have to do one thing -- roll back the clock to upper middle class suburbia, circa 1955.