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  • Writer's pictureJack Metz

Food Fight At School

Updated: Sep 6, 2023

If you haven't noticed yet, I tend to write about the nuance hidden within seemingly unassailable issues like livable wages and housing for everyone. I do it because I feel it is important to shed light on these matters even if it offers a gift-wrapped opportunity to critics who want to discredit me. Well, today's topic might end up yielding the worst out-of-context snippets to date.

Bear with me as I try to make the case against universal school meals.

I know. It sounds horrible. Forcing kids to have to pay to eat?! Before you crucify me, recognize that current law already waives payment requirements for every child anywhere close to the poverty level. Also consider that wealthy families and/or those who prefer to pack their own meals do not require government-sponsored cuisine. Given those factors, does it still make fiscal sense to dedicate scarce budgetary dollars to lock in free food for every student? I'd argue no.

You see, despite how the people pushing for blanket meal coverage have framed the debate, it's not about making sure disadvantaged girls and boys have full stomachs.

Allow me to untangle this yarn and show you what it really boils down to: guaranteeing an additional $11 billion for schools annually... not to mention countless millions more routed through individuals and orgs who benefit from leveraging anecdotes of underprivileged youth.

Teacher Of The Year

The first time I saw a headline about Gabe Segal's efforts to pay down the meal debts of his students, I reacted much the way anyone would: I silently applauded him for stepping up to help the needy. But then story after story began rolling out about the Herndon Middle School teacher; prompting me, for whatever reason, to look at his situation more closely. Upon further examination, I walked away unconvinced this Virginia man is the hero he's been made out to be.

Reading these articles in depth taught me this was not his initial bite at the school lunch apple. A few years earlier, he made news of a similar sort while employed in nearby Falls Church. You'd think that such information would make a feel-good story feel better. But, for me, it did quite the opposite. It confirmed that Segal had now twice spoken up about meal debt at institutions classified as Title 1 schools. In other words, this supposed champion for the downtrodden was sounding the alarm at places where the federal government fully funds poorer students' meals.

Furthermore, programs like the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, SNAP, TANF, WIC, et cetera serve as overlapping safety nets for children that need them. [That's on top of the $8.2 million the state of Virginia earmarked for free meals before the school year in question.] In fact, both of his schools currently hold CEP status, meaning there are no restrictions on who can get free food. All students can receive breakfast and lunch at no charge.

In the spirit of full disclosure, Herndon Middle seems to have only achieved CEP status beginning with the '23-'24 school year... likely explaining why Segal was engaged in fundraising there this spring. Yet here's the rub. He is quoted making the distinction that he was aiding families above the suggested 130% poverty line cutoff that "appear on paper to make enough money or because they didn't fill out the paperwork." Ergo, the destitute were not his concern, despite the tone of these articles. That's not to say the next tranche of kids don't deserve a helping hand. But it is an indication that reality differed greatly from the heartstring-pulling tale we were being sold.

Layered over everything I just mentioned is a clear policy against retaliation for unpaid meal debt. Assuming administrators abide by the rules, wouldn't Mr. Segal's path of least resistance to getting nutritious food in students' bellies be to let them know of this need-blind guideline?

Civics Class

The above begs another question: what could have prompted Segal's school meal endeavor to be packaged to the public the way it was? At the risk of sounding cynical, I believe it was politics.

Don't forget: billions of dollars are at stake here. So, please don't dismiss this is a baseless accusation... especially given that his exploits came to light the same month Virginia's education subcommittee discussed a bill {HB-1967} designed to secure free food for every student.

To reiterate, this teacher made news in 2020 and 2023 but not during the intervening years. Why? Did he not feel the call to action? Actually, there's an easy explanation for that: he didn't need to do anything. Thanks to the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, the federal government essentially footed the bill for everyone through the summer of 2022. But once Congressional Law 116-127 was allowed to lapse, there he was again.

Is it possible that proponents of universal school food programs calculated they could reopen this recently closed window (a pandemic era order that extended free student meals to previously unseen levels) by using stories like Segal's to make permanent what was meant to be temporary?

School News

Tough to prove but, judging from the opinions injected into these stories by the journalists themselves, not unfounded. In that heretofore cited Washington Post column, Theresa Vargas plainly stated that "Congress needs to provide a permanent fix." Days later, a British author named Paige Freshwater chimed in from across the ocean to give her two cents: "... it will be an ongoing problem each and every year until the government makes an all-important change to how it runs its schools."

The press soon expanded their reportage to culture warriors cut from the same cloth as Segal. By the next week, USA Today was feting a Utah middle school teacher with an almost identical goal. [The author of that article admits the educator's efforts had no bearing on whether the children at this school would have been fed, which you're probably starting to perceive is a running theme.] Months later, DC's local Fox affiliate and Good Morning America felt the need to heap praise on a nonprofit navigating an equivalent path one county away from Segal.

Other correspondents bent over backwards to make innocent numbers sound scary. This WJLA clip about Segal, for example, somehow emphasized (at the 45-second mark) how 31% of students receive help in a county where food insecurity affects 24% of residents without making the slightest attempt to signal how those stats signify the supposed problem is being addressed. Or go back to the WaPo article: the big boogeyman debt figure there is $19+ million spread across 847 districts. If you do the math, that means an average of roughly $22,500 per district. Not nothing... but when you factor in that certain districts have over 100 schools in them, we're talking a few dollars per student... especially if you take out the handful of million-dollar outliers. Heck, according to the underlying data, these debts can be as low as $15 for a whole district!

Then there were the reports that resembled nothing more than thinly veiled press releases. Supposedly serious websites ran essays subtitled "Why did it have to end?" to strengthen the crooked case for universal school meals. Nothing could stop these cheerleading gatekeepers from supporting the movement.

[Even when they accidentally revealed gaping holes in the argument, it's as if they were blind to them. Best example? In that very same Vox think piece, the author divulged that this whole thing is really a question of budget tradeoffs... where the people who would label me a foolish monster apparently prioritize "other necessities from computers to teacher pay" above feeding kids.]

Put it all together and the result is what can only be described as an activist journalistic crusade. Look, having strong opinions is perfectly acceptable. Lord knows I'd be a hypocrite if I claimed otherwise. Omitting basic details without compunction, however, demonstrates a total lack of integrity. When it pertains to issues the public does not fully understand, such influence borders on malpractice... malpractice that can be weaponized when placed in the wrong hands.

Extracurricular Activities

Like so many political planks these days, it never ends up being solely about the original mission. Small incursions are merely beachheads for interminable social wars that span continents. In the case of lunch debt, what starts at the individual school level inevitably becomes a district effort, before getting folded into a statewide or national campaign.

Back in February, Segal was quick to point out that his ultimate objective involved "free, universal meals in the county and, eventually, the state." Sure enough, he could be found this summer working with nonprofits and state delegates to push his message far beyond Herndon. [Interestingly, one of those delegates, Danica Roem, has tapped the nonprofit head featured on Good Morning America to be a star ally in Richmond proceedings.] A homogenous blueprint was rolled out in Utah, too. The teacher originally concerned with covering meal fees at one Heber City school not long after was, in league with a 501(c)(3), urging dialogue with state legislators.

Those were the more benign affairs. There were others that were far dirtier. In Oklahoma, one school district sent out menacing letters related to money owed that the superintendent later confessed were intimidation tools devoid of teeth. Did the State House Representative interviewed for the story condemn these actions? Of course not. She stuck to the "free lunch for all kids" script. Even that paled in comparison to an older story I found where a Pennsylvania school district threatened to put children into foster care if family meal debts were not settled... only to follow that up with an inexplicably vindictive rebuke of philanthropy that would have wiped away the entire balance!

Report Card

When it comes to school meal debt, it's obvious that there's some sort of bait-and-switch shell game afoot. Instead of being upfront about the real problem faced by a smaller subset of lower-middle-class families, the universal school meal sect is more than happy to let regular folks assume a pervasive scourge is affecting a huge chunk of the absolute poorest members of the community.

People like Segal help "raise awareness" by letting everyone else know where they can urgently donate money to this deceptive cause. In turn, the media showers the organizers with accolades sans journalistic pushback. Once the response reaches a critical mass, lobbyists and lawmakers step in to ensure these flawed ideas are imposed on society. If by divine providence they fail, the parties involved regroup and retool their double-dipping dialogue. Always ready for the next cycle. Always looking for more money.

In short, the universal school meal drive is a scam.

Nobody wants kids to go hungry. The good news is that, thanks to a multitude of existing programs and the power of directed generosity, none of them have to.

Anyone who says differently deserves your scrutiny.

Note: the post above may contain commentary reflecting the author's opinion.


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