A Different Kind of Bread Line

The great food giveaway

The first time I glanced out my window and saw the line of cars, I thought it was a funeral procession. Slow-moving, inching along at a stately pace, the formation seemed never-ending. I went online to discover which important person had died.

No one had. When I expressed my bafflement to a neighbor, she explained that the hundreds of cars I was seeing were in line for state-sponsored free food boxes. Since schools closed for COVID making school breakfasts and lunches unavailable, distribution points were set up where families could pick up food. “Don’t try to drive down that street on Tuesday morning,” was her advice.

I soon discovered that my nearest giveaway location, the one disrupting the traffic outside my window, was only one of many within a three mile radius. Theoretically, anyone willing to sit in line could get food multiple times a week. A sign in your car window stating how many children you had under the age of eighteen was the only requirement. Savvy consumers quickly learned that you could find lists of what was being offered at each location and design your pick-ups around your preferred menu – or vice-versa.

Naturally, the food isn’t all healthy. An abundance of chips, cookies and prepared frozen foods accompany the vegetables, chicken and meat being distributed. Frequently, quantities are ridiculous. Five children means five boxes. Does each child really consume a quart of milk a day? A pound of carrots? Much of this government (i.e. taxpayer) largesse ends up in the garbage. Not surprisingly, I have heard nary a peep about climate change or carbon emissions as cars creep forward for over an hour.

Long before there were federal, or even state, school food programs, caring citizens instituted local, volunteer-run ones. In New York City, the Children’s Aid Society ran such a program for vocational schools as early as 1853. The food was cooked and served by mothers. The impetus to make sure children are well-fed is both a noble and a reasonable one. Yet, like many good ideas, the more the government gets involved, the more it tends to get out-of-hand. In 2006, the now federalized program cost about $8,000,000,000 (billion) serving an average of 28 million lunches a day. Failures inherent in government programs that lend themselves to waste, corruption and unintended consequences abound. Childhood obesity is a serious health concern that wasn’t part of the calculation in 1946 when the National School Lunch Program was founded on the heels of the Depression.

Now, COVID has turned a school nutrition program into a family subsidy. As inflation soars and food prices jump, even families that chose not to take advantage of the program a year ago are joining in.

How does this end? Can you really yank an ‘entitlement’ away? Do these programs inadvertently damage family relationships by replacing parents with the government? Is there an endless cycle whereby the more the government provides for children, the less parents take responsibility for their own children so that the government will need to provide even more help?

I don’t have any answers. Separating public policies shaping access to food for children from other policies and cultural trends that might encourage adults to provide children with a stable home led by a mother and father is a futile exercise. Establishing procedures that provide food while other government ideas make it difficult for parents to work with dignity and care for their young, is a band-aid that will not mitigate the much larger damage imposed on families and young people by our current society. Feeding bodies (even if it was done well) while starving brains and souls won’t yield a healthy future.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your comments on this Susan’s Musing article.
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