By Carol Reimer Williams, MS, RDN
Last year Governor Newsom shut down California destroying 2.7 million jobs and tens of thousands of businesses to “flatten the curve” so hospitals could manage the spike in alleged COVID-19 cases. Public schools were also closed, however they continued to feed students and, in some cases entire families. Now our governor wants to feed breakfast and lunch to every student in California, all 6 million of them, forever for free.
Genoveva Islas, a Fresno Unified School District (FUSD) school board member and CEO of Cultura La Salud, a health advocacy organization, believes that one of the best ways to help students learn is to give them free school meals. Before COVID-19 FUSD qualified as a low-income school district which allows all students to receive free school meals.
Islas writes in her recent Fresno Bee article, “Everybody gets the same meal, regardless of if they could pay for it or not and certainly if someone can’t pay for it, they’re not going to be excluded.”
Yes, everyone gets the very same meal. Each school district has its own program, but the promised cost savings afforded by large-scale buying power and offered by this expansion to free-meals-for-all-students rests on the premise that everybody eats the same thing.
Food preferences are perhaps the biggest single reason the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) has struggled profoundly since its inception over 70 years ago. The only way group feeding can be effective is to serve food that everyone likes. In the FUSD student body there are 59 languages spoken with an unknown number of religious affiliations. The corresponding amount of food preferences and restrictions are unimaginable. The notion of successful mass feeding in this context seems preposterous.
A typical FUSD breakfast menu is a carb-fest with refined, white flour white sugar foods like pancakes and muffins, plus cereal and juice. The lunches, equally carb heavy, read like a fast food menu with fruit and vegetable afterthoughts. FUSD menus emulate the poorest nutritional food options our society has to offer. Many food combinations are odd such as peach cup (shelf-stable diced peaches in juice) and a fresh nectarine in the same meal.
A glaring lack of variety is seen in the Pre-School lunch menu at Williams School (FUSD) which serves sandwiches each and every day for lunch. Both PB&J and Turkey and Cheese sandwiches each appear twice in one week.
If your child can’t or won’t drink milk, kiddo missed out on a small (9 grams) but important source of protein offered at both meals. Providing those key nutrients through other foods and having milk as an option rather than a required menu item adds significant food costs. It is for this reason that budget-friendly broccoli, carrots and raisins (vitamin C, vitamin A, and iron content respectively) are served multiple times per week every week. Fruitable (brand) juice another menu regular, is a highly processed, vitamin fortified juice beverage made by a New Jersey company. So much for locally grown produce.
See for yourself. Visit https://fresnounified.nutrislice.com/menu, pick a school, review a menu and ask yourself if that’s what you or your child would like to eat next week for breakfast and lunch. Perhaps after your assessment it will be clearer as to why this food is free since few may want pay for it.
Free meals to all California students will cost taxpayers an additional $650 million annually. This includes free meals to 2.3 million students who don’t financially require this subsidy, which eclipses the number of Californians (1.9 million) who identify as food insecure according to Feeding America, the nations’ largest domestic hunger-relief organization. Rather than feed hungry Californians we feed kids whose families can afford to pay for their school food.
This is a prime example of an abysmal “feel good” public policy and, is by this definition void of any proof of efficacy. It panders to those who will blindly follow the assertion that free food for kids must be a good idea. It mirrors the political push for government dependency, usurps parental authority, wastes taxpayer dollars on food that will end up in the trash all the while failing to zero in on food insecurity in California.
Studies show that household income consistently explains more discrepancy in food insecurity than any other factor. The reason people are food insecure is that they are poor. An increase in income drives an increase in food security. The very income provided by a job or business profits such as those denied Californians by their governor. Food insecurity is not solved by a nutrition program or stimulus money because neither are an income. These are hand-outs from the government to attempt to smooth over the problems it created.
Over the past 18 months so many Californians, especially children, have suffered in unspeakable ways at the hands of Governor Newsom. It would be foolish to think that this same leader who ushered in devastation on the very people he is to serve would be capable of solving the crisis he created.
Free food for school kids is a pathetic, misguided attempt to fix this horrific wrong committed against the families of California. With few exceptions, it is gainful employment and business support that will provide a true and long-lasting solution for California’s hunger problem.