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Melissa Sher Headshot

For the Congressman Who Suggested That Kids Who Get Free Lunch Should Clean Floors

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Half of all American children live in a home that has used or will use federal food assistance.

Half of all American children.

It's almost unimaginable.

And it makes what one high-ranking Congressman said nearly impossible to believe. In fact, it too would be unimaginable, had he not said it on video:

"...But one of the things I've talked to the secretary of Agriculture about, 'Why don't you have the kids pay a dime, pay a nickel to instill in them that there is in fact no such thing as a free lunch? Or maybe sweep the floor in the cafeteria?' And yes, I understand that would be an administrative problem and I understand that it would probably lose you money but think what we would gain as a society in getting people -- getting the myth out of their head -- that there is such thing as a free lunch."

"Why don't you have the kids... maybe sweep the floor in the cafeteria?" asked Congressman Jack Kingston, who for two years chaired the U.S. House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, the one that oversees the nation's school lunch program.

There's a problem with Rep. Kingston's suggestion. Actually, there are a few thousand problems. But let's start with the most obvious one:

The National School Lunch Act was a federal law created in 1946 and it has a whole bunch of words in it, including these:

"No physical segregation of or other discrimination against any child eligible for a free lunch or a reduced price lunch under this subsection shall be made by the school nor shall there by any overt identification of any child by special tokens or tickets, announced or published lists of names, or by other means."

I'm guessing that "by other means" includes making the 32 million children who participate in the free or reduced-price lunch program sweep up after themselves and their classmates.

And I would think that Rep. Kingston who once served as the top Republican on the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee would be familiar with that particular law. Of course, if he wasn't, he could have done what I did which was look it up on Wikipedia.

But Rep. Kingston, who is running for Georgia's open U.S. Senate seat, made his suggestion because he wants to make sure that children receiving free or subsidized meals learn "there is no such thing as a free lunch."

Because certainly the children in our country who don't appreciate and value their meals are the ones living with families who have incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level. It is these kids -- rather than the children who return home from school with lunch bags still full of carrots, sandwiches with only two missing bites, and containers of unopened, lukewarm yogurt -- who need to learn that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Yes, it's these kids who need to learn that they don't get -- as I assume he meant -- something for nothing.

And, it is this point that really confuses me. These children are not being given "something for nothing." We help these children so they can make it through their school days. We decided 67 years ago that we, as a nation, should help the children among us who don't have enough to eat so that they too could go to school and so that they too could learn.

Fifth-grader Rosie was interviewed in the documentary, A Place at the Table about how hunger affects her ability to get through her day:

"I start yawning then I zone out and I'm just looking at the teacher. And I look at her and all I think about is food. So I have these visions in my eyes. Sometimes when I look at her I envision her as a banana... and everyone in the class is like apples or oranges."

My question for Congressman Kingston: At what point in Rosie's day should she clean floors?

In my opinion, the congressman's suggested change to the federal lunch program was unconscionable. And I have my own proposal for him:

I am asking Rep. Kingston to spend an entire day in a classroom at one of the elementary schools in his district. He should eat the "free breakfast," "free lunch," go to class, and consume nothing else for the remainder of the day.

And I will be sending this article to Rep. Kingston's office. I hope that those who are reading this (if they agree with me) will please share this on their Facebook pages or on other forums to let him know that I am not alone in my opinion.

I am not asking Rep. Kingston to sweep the floors. But I am asking him to go to school. Because I believe he needs to walk in somebody else's shoes. In this case, 32 million -- that's the number of participants in the lunch program -- of them.