Several years ago, after our country became sharply divided over the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Patriot Act and just about every other policy decision, I made a personal commitment to try and understand different perspectives. I read the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, and I listened to Rush Limbaugh and Al Franken on talk radio. I read books by commentators from the left and the right.
This exercise did help to nuance my positions on many issues. But perhaps more importantly I developed a better understanding and appreciation for perspectives different than mine.
An appreciation for perspectives, however, doesn't mean that outrageous and dangerous positions shouldn't be called out. And Rush Limbaugh, that beacon of healthy eating, seems to be leading a charge against providing kids with healthy meals with these statements on his show on Wednesday:
"Michelle Obama told us they're all so fat and out of shape and overweight that a summer off from government eating might be just the ticket."
Now railing against "government eating" is a standard conservative perspective. Many people with libertarian leanings would prefer to see small private institutions have a larger role in addressing societal concerns such as hunger and nutrition. But Limbaugh isn't lamenting the proposed solution; he's denying that a childhood nutrition problem even exists:
"Where to find food. And, of course, the first will be: 'Try your house.' It's a thing called the refrigerator. You probably already know about it. Try looking there. There are also things in what's called the kitchen of your house called cupboards. And in those cupboards, most likely you're going to find Ding-Dongs, Twinkies, Lays ridgy potato chips, all kinds of dips and maybe a can of corn that you don't want, but it will be there. If that doesn't work, try a Happy Meal at McDonald's....There's another place if none of these options work to find food; there's always the neighborhood dumpster."
Does he make these recommendations based on any understanding of the life of children struggling with poverty? Does he really lack the imagination to realize that many children in America live in an environment different from his childhood memories of Ding-Dongs and Twinkies?
I have to assume that Limbaugh's statements represent the feelings of millions of Americans. I mistakenly thought that we were at a different point in the debate, that we all understood that childhood hunger is serious and needs to be wiped out. Of course we can argue the merits of different interventions and the effectiveness of federal programs vs. community-based approaches. But do we really need to debate whether childhood hunger actually exists, and that some families unfortunately do not have the income or the skills to keep adequate food on the table?
Nearly 14 million children are served by the Feeding America network of food banks (maybe those kids just like to hang out at food banks for the atmosphere?). The USDA estimates that 16.7 million children live in food insecure households, and 2.3 million households are more than a mile away from a supermarket and do not have access to a vehicle.
My hunch is that throwing around a bunch of childhood hunger facts isn't going to change the opinion of Limbaugh. But perhaps the business case would. Undernourished children are less likely to establish relationships, learn from their surroundings, are more susceptible to illness, and are more often absent from school.
How does millions of children not achieving their full learning potential effect our national competitiveness and possibilities for innovation? An investment in increasing children's access to healthy foods has an obvious and direct public benefit. Don't let Limbaugh and his colleagues make light of the challenges these children face, or the societal opportunities that we are missing.