House Republicans are pushing to restrict a low-income food aid program to children in “rural” areas, a surprising move that has Democrats and nutrition advocates crying foul.
The proposal, included in the House agriculture budget approved by a subcommittee this week, scales back an anti-hunger school lunch demonstration program set up in 2010 to feed “children in urban and rural areas” during the summer months when they’re on break.
Democrats slammed the change as unfair to urban kids.
“Excluding children from urban areas jeopardizes the effectiveness of the demonstration program and is also mean-spirited. Hunger isn’t bound by per capita population data, and children in urban areas shouldn’t be penalized because of where they live,” House Appropriations Ranking Member Nita Lowey (D-NY) said.
A House GOP appropriations spokeswoman defended the shift, calling the summer lunch program in question “simply a pilot” and saying the bill includes “a larger program that provides $493 million in summer nutrition assistance for children in all areas, both urban and rural.” That’s in addition to other nutrition and food aid programs like food stamps and the Women and Infant Children program, or WIC.
It’s true that rural Appalachia has a unique set of challenges in delivering food to poor and hungry kids: the distances are greater and it costs more for parents to drive their kids to school, where the summer lunches are made available. But it isn’t lost on Democrats that their constituents — many of whom are struggling in poverty — mostly reside in urban areas while rural areas tend to be packed with GOP voters. The Appalachian region is also more white (83.5 percent) than the United States overall (63.7 percent), according to the Appalachian Regional Commission — and much more so than urban areas, which have a disproportionately high share of minorities. The chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction is Rep. Robert Aderholt, who represents vast Appalachian areas in Alabama.
“It’s not clear to me if this was a fuck-up or if it was plainly mean-spirited or what happened,” said a House Democratic aide. “But we’re going to work to change it.”
The proposed bill also comes as a shock to anti-hunger advocates, who say the existing programs for both rural and urban kids are insufficient.
“Kids are already under-served by the summer school program,” said Crystal FitzSimons, director of school programs at the nonprofit Food Research and Action Center. “Rural communities really do struggle with the summer lunch program. But there are not enough food programs for low-income children in rural and urban areas, which is a huge problem. We need to invest more in these programs for kids.”
The twist comes in the wake of a popularized conservative meme about the moral hazards of free lunches for school kids. In July 2012, Fox News aired a segment on the “controversy” surrounding summer school lunch program, which it called “a valuable resource for families who are struggling and, critics say, a nice freebie for those who are not.”