A Conservative Meme On School Lunches: Work For It, Kids!

Photo Illustration by Christopher O'Driscoll
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Before Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) fibbed and told a story at CPAC about free school lunches that turned out to be false, the meme had been long in the making as a conservative rallying cry about the evils of liberal ideology.

It was adopted in the Senate primaries by Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA), who suggested in December that school kids “maybe sweep the floor of the cafeteria” if they want to avail of free lunches. (Kingston, who is struggling in a three-way race with two ultraconservative opponents, was later found to have expensed nearly $4,200 in meals to his congressional office.)

Last April, a state lawmaker in West Virginia, Ray Canterbury (R), argued during a school lunch debate that it’d be a “good idea” to have “the kids work for their lunches.” He proposed that they take out the trash, sweep the hallways or mow the lawns in order to earn their food.

Sometimes the sentiment materializes into action. In the Salt Lake City School District in January, lunch trays were swiped away from dozens of elementary school children before they could eat anything, as officials told those students it was because they had negative balances in their accounts. (Officials later apologized after an outcry from parents.)

The National School Lunch Program, which provides federal assistance for public and private schools to offer lunch to children, has been around since 1946. It feeds 17.5 million kids with free or reduced-cost lunches every school day. The lunch is free if their household earns below 130 percent of the federal poverty line, and cheaper if it’s between 130 and 185 percent of poverty. It aims to address a real problem: three out of five teachers report that kids in their classrooms regularly come to school hungry, and a majority says the problem is getting worse, according to a survey by the advocacy group No Kid Hungry.

So, what’s really behind the antipathy toward government-subsidized school lunches?

It stitches together a panoply of notions that are popular with conservatives: that the government spends too much money helping the poor, that free lunches are emblematic of wealth redistribution and that families (rather than the state) should look after children. It’s also a dog-whistle to the idea, which has grown popular on the right in the Obama era, that too many able-bodied people are lazy and mooching off the federal government. A corollary to this is the claim that liberals don’t value the dignity of work. Wound together, “no free school lunches” serves as a rallying cry that plays to the GOP base’s primal ideological convictions.

The idea that kids should work was also test-driven by Newt Gingrich during the 2012 GOP presidential primaries: he suggested that schools fire their janitors and have kids clean.

A parallel story that is aggravating conservative sentiments is First Lady Michelle Obama’s effort to make kids healthier by overhauling nutrition standards for school lunches. Not only has it prompted howls of outrage from radio host Rush Limbaugh, it has motivated three Republican congressmen to introduce legislation that requires the White House and U.S. Department of Agriculture to abide by the same nutrition standards.

Conservative news outlets have tapped into the zeitgeist. Back in July 2012, Fox News aired a segment about the “controversy” of “taxpayers feeding every child, whether they’re needy or not.” The segment was about the summer lunch program, which is there to assist kids who rely on assistance for lunches through the school year. An anchor said, “It’s a valuable resource for families who are struggling and, critics say, a nice freebie for those who are not.”

By the time Ryan — the House’s budget chairman and a rumored 2016 presidential hopeful — seized on the notion, it was well-worn in his movement. Last week he spoke to conservatives of a young, poor boy who didn’t want a free lunch and instead wanted one that his parents made for him. “The left is making a big mistake here. What they’re offering people is a full stomach and an empty soul,” he said. “The American people want more than that.”

It is a testament to the power of the idea among conservatives that Ryan’s tale was not only second-hand from a state official in Wisconsin but also fictitious. He ended up apologizing for “failing to verify the original source of the story.”

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