Political Physics – Even Food for Poor Kids Isn’t Off Limits


a blogumn by Monique King-Viehland

kids nutrition

When I was a little girl we were working poor – meaning my mom worked one, two and sometimes three jobs to take care of my brother and me, but we still lived fairly below the poverty line for a family of three.  I remember going to school and everyday in homeroom I would get a small, white ticket.  It was white and a little bit bigger than a quarter.  I took that ticket with me to the lunchroom and handed it to the lunch lady along with fifty cents and she gave me my lunch.  At the time I did not really understand that I was getting “reduced” or “subsidized” lunch.  Nor did I realize that I was one of millions of kids around the country who carried small, white breakfast and/or lunch tickets everyday.

The National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program are federally assisted meal programs that operate in more than 101,000 and 87,000 public and non-profit private schools and residential care facilities across the country respectively.  According to the program’s website, the school lunch programs serves more than 30.5 million children and the school breakfast program serves more than 10.6 million children everyday.

In order to qualify for both programs, children must be from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level for free meals and between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level for reduced-price meals.”  To give you an example, according to the U.S Department of Agriculture, “130 percent of the poverty level is $28,665 for a family of four and 185 percent of the poverty level is $40,793 for a family of four.”  And there are no shortage of families who met this criteria even before the recent economic downtown.  According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, 41 percent or 29.9 million children in the United States live in low-income households.

Even now I can remember that there were some children, particularly in my elementary school, who relied on that meal as there main or only meal of the day.

And the cliché that breakfast is the most important meal of the day is truer than we’d like to imagine.

According to 2007 study by the University of Wisconsin, “eating breakfast benefits children’s ability to learn and concentrate.  Students who have not eaten breakfast perform more poorly on mathematical tests, matching activities, tasks involving memory and measures of creativity.”  Moreover, the U.S. Department of Agriculture notes “scientific evidence supports that eating breakfast affects a child’s performance in school in a number of positive ways. Kids who eat breakfast: concentrate better, have more energy, learn more and miss fewer school days due to illness.”

Yet, even with the clear correlation between nutrition programs like the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program and the successful performance of children, states like New Jersey are cutting their state aid to children’s nutrition programs.

As part of the recent push in New Jersey to reduce the nearly $10 billion deficit, Governor Christie proposed eliminating the state’s $3 million contribution to subsidized school breakfast programs and reducing the state’s contribution to free and reduced lunch by approximately $2.4 million.  During his testimony before the Assembly Budget Committee two weeks ago, State Treasurer Andrew Eristoff “insisted that federal aid for the program[s] will enable [them] to continue without hurting children.  The administration would eliminate its 10 cents per breakfast and lunch meal contribution while the federal contribution of $1.46 per meal would continue.”  In addition, according to NewJerseyNewsRoom.Com, Eristoff said, “[nor] would the quality of breakfasts and lunches be affected by the aid cut.”

So children will still be fed right?  And the quality of the food will remain the same right?  Plus we are saving money right?  So what is the problem?

According to recent statistics from NewJerseyNewsRoom.Com “1,813 public and private schools participate in the breakfast program and 2,694 schools in the lunch program.”  In Mercer County, the county where I live, the State Department of Agriculture, which oversees both the school breakfast and lunch programs, says, “more than 39,000 Mercer County students are enrolled in the subsidized breakfast program, with 6,200 of those enrolled participating daily.  And slightly more than 60,000 children in Mercer County are enrolled in the National School Lunch Program and of those 60,000; nearly half participate on a daily basis.”

Opponents of the proposed cuts argue that although children may not go hungry, they will suffer from adverse impacts associated with such funding cuts.  Phyllis Stoolmacher, Director of the Mercer Street Friends Food Bank said, “state funding cuts to free and reduced-cost lunch and breakfast programs that enroll as many as 60,000 Mercer County students could result in lower-quality, less nutritious meals for the children who need them most, according to one local hunger advocate.”

Furthermore, in facing significant cuts to their school budgets on several fronts, opponents fear that schools will have no choice but to pass the buck onto families whose children do not qualify for free or reduced lunch, but who also may be struggling in these touch economic times.  The New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition contends “cuts to school lunch programs will require those who pay for their lunch to pay more (an estimated $.75 more per meal), creating a hardship for working poor households just over the income guidelines.”

One way or the other, it sounds like someone is going to be adversely impacted by these cuts.  To the point of starvation, no, but schools will more than likely look at revamping menus to save money which will mean a reduction in food quality.  And someone will have to pay to fill the gap left by the reduction in state funding and whether those families are at 130 percent of poverty level or 185 percent of poverty level or beyond still represents financial hardship during these tough economic times.

But what really bothers me is that when you start cutting breakfast and lunch programs it is clear that nothing is off limits when the state needs to save money — not even poor children.