Even Jimmy Schmidt would have gone for a deal like that.
According to MSNBC, the National School Lunch Program is the latest victim of America’s rapidly rising food and fuel costs. The cost of subsidized breakfasts and lunches has shot up by as much as 50 percent in some schools.
Despite an $8.7 billion-plus annual subsidy — despite a 4.3 percent increase in funding this year — the School Nutrition Association wants the government to spend more.
To understand how we got to this point, a little school-lunch history is in order.
During the Depression, FDR saw an opportunity to feed America’s poorest kids at the same time he could win the favor of farmers by buying their food with government dough.
In 1946, the Truman administration formalized the government’s role. During both World War I and World War II, the government noticed that some recruits suffered from malnutrition and stunted growth. To solve the problem — and win the favor of food producers — the National School Lunch Act was born.
Though there was, and still is, lots of debate and politics surrounding the program, the premise was reasonable enough: For some of America’s poorest kids, a hot breakfast or lunch at school might be the only decent meal they have all day.
Which brings us to 2008. The program has expanded a wee bit.
Today, 30.5 million of America’s 56 million schoolchildren — roughly 54 percent — participate in the program. Half — children from families at or below 130 percent of the poverty level — receive free lunches. Many others — children at or below 185 percent of the poverty level — are eligible for heavily discounted lunches; they pay 40 cents. Even students from high-income families enjoy a partial subsidy.
If only I could have enjoyed government-subsidized grub at St. Germaine School in the 1970s.
My mother, a master at pinching pennies, packed our lunches. Early in the school year, she was enthusiastic. We never got name-brand treats, but she made a fresh ham sandwich, gave us a fat peach or pear and sometimes baked up some muffins or cookies.
Her enthusiasm waned by the second week of school though. The rest of the year, my lunch consisted of two end pieces of bread and a hunk of bologna glued together by warm mayonnaise. She tossed in some celery, a couple peanut butter crackers and a Washington apple; the apple was littered with multiple half-moon cuts, as my sisters examined every apple with their fingernails before choosing one to eat.
Every day I sat next to Jimmy Schmidt. His lunch consisted of peanut butter and jelly on fresh Wonder Bread, a can of Coke, Hostess Ho Hos and a Nestle Crunch bar — not exactly nutritious, but lunch heaven for a kid back then.
Every day I asked Jimmy if he wanted to trade. He looked at me like I had rocks in my head.
And now, where school lunches are concerned, I think Congress has rocks in its head.
On one hand, the School Nutrition Association people do a tremendous job preparing hot meals for kids. Who can blame them for wanting more government dough to offset rising costs?
But on the other hand, how did taxpayers get into the business of subsidizing the lunches of more than half of America’s school kids? Helping out America’s poor is one thing, but folks at 185 percent of the poverty level earn up to $38,000 a year. And though they may not be rolling in the dough, why should other people be expected to feed their kids?
Government subsidies go only one way, however: up.
That is why the Congress that drove up food costs through nutty ethanol subsidies and increased energy costs through nutty energy policies — the Congress whose nutty policies ultimately drove up the cost of school lunches — will probably “resolve” the problem the only way it knows how: make taxpayers fork over even more dough to feed even more kids.
As I said, even Jimmy Schmidt wouldn’t turn down a free-lunch deal like that.