09 December 2010

Somebody's "criminally negligent," but it ain't the parents

The Raw Story is having a field day with the unfortunate choice of words by conservative editor and pundit Kate O'Beirne of the National Review, who says,
My question is what poor excuse for a parent can't rustle up a bowl of cereal and a banana? I just don't get why millions of school children qualify for school breakfasts unless we have a major wide spread problem with child neglect. If that's how many parents are incapable of pulling together a bowl of cereal and a banana, then we have problems that are way bigger than -- that problem can't be solved with a school breakfast, because we have parents who are just [...] criminally negligent with respect to raising children.
O'Beirne is referring to the USDA's school breakfast program, which reimburses schools in cash for serving breakfasts to kids in need. Kids can get a free or reduced-price breakfast depending on where their family's income level lies on the federally-defined poverty scale. In fiscal 2009, of the 11.1 million kids who participated in the federal school breakfast program every day, 9.1 million got their breakfast for free or for a reduced price. The program cost $2.9 billion in 2009 (PDF).

By contrast, in 2009, the Department of Defense spent about $4.4 billion per month on the war in Afghanistan (PDF).

My point, and I do have one, is two-fold. One, obviously, reimbursing a school to the tune of $1.50 per hot breakfast served is not a very large expense. A program that costs, on a yearly basis, less than the cost of waging war for three weeks is not something the elimination of which will do much to reduce the federal deficit. And of course it's penny-wise, pound-foolish to make nutrition even harder to obtain for kids who are at-risk socioeconomically and academically in the first place, when it's well known that the better a kid eats, the better she'll do in school (click to page 2). So advocating for the end of federally funded free and reduced-fee lunches is just stupid on two levels: the savings wouldn't amount to anything significant, and it would create further academic and disciplinary problems among disadvantaged kids and the teachers and the other students around them.

My second point, though, is that, um, to tell the truth, I don't 100% disagree with O'Beirne's point -- very, very badly expressed -- that parents should give their kids breakfast, and it's not that hard. Now, I don't think it's "criminal" or "negligent." Rather, I think it's a lack of good old-fashioned home economics education. Because you know what, a breakfast of oatmeal and a banana is cheap and nutritious. Bananas are regularly 69 cents a pound and a paperboard canister of generic old-fashioned oats can be had for about $4.00. I don't mean a box of packets of pre-sweetened, flavored, instant oats; or a tin can of imported Irish oats; or a sack of organic, gluten-free, hippie-friendly oats; or paper cups of express-instant oatmeal. I mean a paperboard can of store-brand, non-instant, old-fashioned oats.

So if bananas are 69 cents per pound, and one banana weighs about a quarter pound; and if you use 1/2 cup of oatmeal from a $4.00 canister that holds about 7 cups of oatmeal; then you have a breakfast that costs about 18 cents plus 29 cents, or less than 50 cents per kid. Plus the cost of water and cooking energy, which is not completely negligible, but which adds at most a nickel to the calculus.

It's not the world's best breakfast. A growing kid wants and needs more than a half-cup (before cooking) of oatmeal and a single banana; most kids need some protein, like milk or yogurt or an egg or something, or else they'll get hungry long before lunchtime. But if you don't have much money, this is a cheap way to get calories and nutrition into a kid in the morning.

A destitute household may not have a microwave oven. But very, very few households are so desperate that they have no stove, whether gas or electric, or no electric at all for a crockpot (you can get a new one for $15) or a plug-in electric kettle (they start at about $15). I'm not saying that households that desperate don't exist in the U.S.; I'm saying that this kind of household needs more than a blog post on home economics.

And, no, I don't live in a blasted-out neighborhood in North Philadelphia, or an out-of-the-way hamlet in Appalachia with no jobs, tax base, or public services. We have heat in the winter and A/C in the summer; my daughter has her own room and her own bed; and I have the education and the skills to fill my pantry with cheap, nutritious foods acquired in bulk when they go on sale. I have a reliable safety net with my friends and family, and my ex-husband hasn't missed a support payment yet. So I can be accused of having a huge blind spot to the realities of feeding the kids when there is zero, and I mean zero, money in the house, and it's another week before the assistance check arrives. But I hope I'm not in the same place as the law professor who told me, when I was passed over for summer funding for a public-interest internship, that she knew where I was coming from because, she explained, she had briefly been a social worker in New York City. (I confess I lost my temper and asked her less than tactfully if she would like to tell my daughter that we'd be having spaghetti again for dinner that night, and probably for the rest of the summer as well.)

But in the end, calling parents "criminally negligent" doesn't help the debate. Ad hominem attacks deflect from the real point, which I presume -- but can't be sure because her comment was so stupid and inflammatory -- for O'Beirne was federal fiscal responsibility. And I want to stand by my real point that you can feed your family cheaply and nutritiously, if you educate yourself, avoid convenience and junk foods, and equip your kitchen with some basic tools. But when rich people call poor people "criminally negligent," people like The Raw Story get their panties in a twist about the wrong problem. It isn't rich people hating poor people. That is a problem, but it's not going to go away when websites fan the class-war flames by posting unflattering photos and quotes from Rush Limbaugh. The important problem is that statistic up there, which is, holy crap, over 11 million children in the U.S. use the school breakfast program. That is more than 1 in 10 American kids (Census.gov). And let me tell you, that's not just "urban" kids or immigrant "anchor babies."

You know what, I'll bite anyway. Kate O'Beirne, on what insane planet do you live where it is "criminally negligent" to make sure your children get fed? When your fridge is empty, when it takes two buses and a trolley to get to a decent supermarket, when your child's father hasn't made a support payment in years, and when it's another ten days to your loan disbursement or your paycheck or your TANF or SSI check, how do you feed your kids? If you're smart and lucky like me, your kid gets spaghetti for dinner every day for half a month, because I stocked up last time the generic spaghetti went on super discount, and I live in a home where I got the big cabinet in the marital property split and I don't have to worry about break-ins. But if I'd sent my daughter to get free breakfast from the city that summer, that would have made me a "criminally negligent" parent? What an abhorrent opinion. It's another case of poor people being damned if they do, damned if they don't.

Anyway, the rich people kind of got what they wanted. According to the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 pays for expanded access to the USDA breakfast program by cutting food stamp benefits by $59 per month. That's a lot of oatmeal and bananas.

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