Two blocks north of my family’s home in our rural Minnesota town sits one of our city parks. In these early days of warm weather after an incredibly long winter, my children and I can’t get enough sunlight or exercise, and the park is a boon for both. But the park, and another across town, now entice in a different way: For five days a week at midday, the parks become centers of “free” food for children.
At around eleven o’clock in the morning at the park we frequent, trucks pull up to the picnic shelter. Friendly people wheel out equipment and set out food to serve on picnic tables. The personnel and the food arrive courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), which began in 1968 and has provided millions of kids with nutritious food during summer months. In essence, the cafeterias from public schools stay open even when school’s out. The food is kid-friendly and always includes some fresh fruit, like grapes, bananas, apples, even mixed tropical fruit, as well as fresh vegetables, often lettuce, baby carrots, even grape tomatoes, and broccoli. Dessert is provided occasionally, too.
Importantly, at our county’s open program sites, all children 18 years old or younger can partake. Because so many families here live at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level, which is an annual income of $44,122 for a family of four, our local program essentially assumes that all children who come to the park come from families who financially struggle to feed their offspring. So no child at this picnic needs to be enrolled in a program or subjected to embarrassing public inquiries. Kids just show up and eat.
Our Family’s Experience
For the last few years, I took my children to this picnic several times throughout the summer. But every time we went, my uneasiness grew. I knew from the beginning that the lunches were intended for kids who don’t receive reliable meals. And the fact that my boys were eating there, when we had milk and fruit and peanut butter two blocks away at home, made me feel ashamed. I knew, even if nobody else did, that we came because I was too lazy to feed them at home—and too greedy to resist a lunch handout.
I tried to justify our attendance in several ways. “My kids get to socialize,” I’d tell myself. “They’re very young, and they don’t see other kids every day.” Going to the park when the maximum number of kids they knew were there was fun for them. I’d also whine internally. “I’m tired. It’s easier to let them eat here than to trek home and then whip something up myself.” As a mom of two young ones, and later three, a big seller for me was the convenience of someone else sweating the midday meal work. Sometimes I’d deceive myself about my own fiscal prudence and my desire for daily fresh food for my children. “It’s the end of the month, I’m not buying any fresh fruit for another two days, so at least the boys can get some there.” Essentially, I’d use our family’s near-empty food budget to justify getting some apples. “I’m being frugal!” became a cover for taking advantage of charity and nutrition elsewhere—and for excusing my own poor financial and menu planning at home. We always had food at home, but the food at the park was “free” and fresh. How could I deny my kids that?
But this year, these excuses no longer hold up for me. It may seem silly to be bothered by bananas and milk, but I’ve realized the SFSP is much more than just a picnic lunch. It’s emblematic of government writ large swooping in to help the few truly needy kids and, in the process, inflicting hidden costs upon parents and children like me and my family. How? The monetary costs alone give me pause—nearly $3.50 per child per lunch. If we copied that lunch rate at home, our family food budget for the month would double. But the costs I’m most concerned about are not monetary but familial, involving hunger well beyond the need for food.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle?
One cost involves waste, of both food and opportunity. Last summer, the normal park site near our home was moved to a school playground only a block from our house. We watched children walk past our house after they’d eaten, throwing whole apples and sometimes other uneaten food into the street. After seeing this shameless waste, I figured I could try to prevent my own kids from doing the same. I asked a lady distributing food if my eighteen-month-old daughter could have half-portions or even share a plate with her brother. “No,” said the distributor. “Every plate counts, and it would throw off our numbers to combine them.”
She went on to say something about units, portions, and vegetables, basically communicating that counting the total plates and ensuring every plate contained a certain number of Good Things was paramount. I knew she was parroting a bureaucratic line, one that she wouldn’t or couldn’t question or fight, so I didn’t argue. We took an extra plate, and my eighteen-month-old ate half the entrée, most of the fruit, one bite of vegetables, and none of the starch. The rest went in the garbage. I literally felt sick at my failed attempt to prevent waste with my children’s portions.
Much of what I do as a parent involves teaching moderation. One child can’t monopolize all of the toy cars. Another can’t hog all of the lemonade. Sharing and self-control not only help my children get along with one another, they also teach them to be good stewards of their bodies and their resources. Plus, practicality rules at our home. We have finite resources, and we do not waste food if we can help it. So I know that two whole apples will feed three of my children, and the nearly six-year-old will always eat two pieces of bread with the peanut butter, but the two-year-old can only handle one. We expect our children to eat the food we give them, and any extra food—aside from crumbs—becomes leftovers. But nothing about the waste my children inevitably witnessed and practiced at these lunches reinforced those lessons. In fact, they learned that waste is inevitable, and as long as we participated, I could do nothing to stop it.
Waste Not, Want Not
Another incident that happened later reinforced this idea in an even more troublesome way. We arrived at the school playground in time for the kids to eat, and they wanted to play afterwards. They hadn’t drunk much of their milk during the meal, so I kept it for them to finish once the noonday sun had made them thirsty. Once they’d worn themselves out and drunk most of the milk, I looked around for a garbage can to get rid of the leftovers and empty cartons. Unfortunately, the workers had packed everything up, including the trash cans, ready to head over to another park across town to serve lunch. The closest trash can I could see was several hundred yards away in a residential driveway. Rather than leaving the cartons in the sun to rot, I thought I’d take them home, save the little extra for my kids for later and then pitch the empties.
As I maneuvered the stroller and instructed kids to hold hands before we crossed the street, I heard a woman’s voice. “Ma’am? Ma’am?” I realized she was talking to me. I turned toward the woman, one of the lunch distributors, who was leaning out of the driver’s window of a van. “Parents aren’t allowed to take any food off of the grounds,” she said.
I was so shocked I couldn’t even think to say the obvious, which was, What should I do with garbage if there’s nowhere to put it? I said something like “Okay,” and she said, “Just don’t do it again.” Another mom I knew happened to be walking by, and she teased me: “Oh, Emily’s stealing milk!” I managed to laugh but felt so ashamed I had to fight back tears behind my sunglasses.
My emotional reaction came not just from my incredulity and anger that someone would publicly reprimand me without realizing I only wanted to avoid waste and littering. Rather, my tears resulted from the woman’s unspoken accusation and my friend’s inadvertently truthful comment—you’re stealing what’s not for you. Within the parameters of the SFSP, that accusation was true. Neither the milk, nor even the cartons that contained it, were mine. When the woman confronted me about the milk, she didn’t say it unkindly, but she said it as one with authority, as one who had been deemed an arbiter of Government Lunch Milkdom. And my children saw and heard who, in that situation, was boss. I knew instinctively that my otherwise unquestioned role as a parent, as a role-giver, as the one responsible for my children’s nutrition, their manners, and their clean-up had just been invalidated—and into the void of my parental authority stood an employee of the SFSP, of the State.
I’ve come to believe most parents whose children attend the SFSP know this instinctively, if not consciously. After a few free lunches at the park, I noticed most other kids showed up alone. Many were ten or older, but others were much younger. It bothered me that six-year-olds straggled in with no adult in sight. Some obviously lacked a responsible adult in their lives, but others—neatly dressed, hair done by older hands—didn’t. What really hit this home was when kids who know me, in all their unknowing innocence, would volunteer their parents’ whereabouts. “Mommy’s at home.” “Daddy’s on Facebook.”
In some ways, I could sympathize with the parents who stayed away. If my kids weren’t so young, I realized, I’d be tempted to do the same thing. I could well imagine a dialogue parodying benevolent, responsible parenting, intimating that the situation would involve nothing more than simple playtime and food: “Run off to the park and have fun. Sure, you can stay for lunch.” I could very easily pretend that all my kids would be doing is hanging out with friends. But they and I would be engaging in a means-well game where only a full tummy counted—and we would ignore the implicit authority exchange that would happen.
The recent backlash against Michelle Obama’s school lunch nutrition mandates merely reinforces what most parents already know: Waste happens, imposed bureaucratic diets invariably fail, agents of the state may have well-intended plans to feed kids well but actually hurt more than they help. But I think an underlying reason behind the pushback stems from the same uneasiness I’ve felt considering the S FSP. Parents no longer have the final say over what their children eat, and government programs—even ones long used and largely unquestioned—are increasingly becoming the political and social arbiters of a basic human need of children. Mrs. Obama certainly continues to champion the federal government’s role in school nutrition in battlefield terms. The government does not have full legal sway over children’s diets—yet. But it’s not hard to envision a future in which they do.
The sad truth is that most American parents have already handed over their responsibility to raise their children to government programs. Some do so because, for various reasons, they cannot provide for their children’s most basic needs. There’s no question too many American children lack healthy food, and I admit there are kids who need consistent, nutritious meals. I saw them during every visit at the park—the ones whose clothes looked slept in or worn for days at a time, who ate like they hadn’t eaten anything (or anything of nutritional substance) since the day before. But I’d venture a guess that their hunger went—and for too many, continues to go—far beyond an immediate need for food. Ultimately, I question whether meals outsourced from parental involvement do anything to fulfill kids’ need for active, responsible parents. Yes, some kids really need the food provided from the SFSP. But others don’t, and they and their families end up bearing consequences that they could certainly live without.
For much of the year, most parents whose kids eat courtesy of the SFSP trust that public schools will not only educate and discipline their children but also feed them appropriately. Enough evidence exists that this trust is far misplaced. In fact, in some places, depending on federal and state funds to support schools, nutrition, and quality of life mean nearly guaranteed failure. Most local parents I know seem either ignorant of or indifferent to the risks inherent in trading their parental stick for a government carrot. And even parents who are literally present at the table, as I was at the SFSP lunches, find themselves at the mercy of a bureaucracy that negates parental authority. My experience at the picnic taught me the chilling lesson that no matter how well-intentioned the program, no matter how friendly the paid workers, no matter how nutritious the food, as long as we participated, I was an accessory to my children, not the mom actively engaged in their well-being.
Responsible parenting happens when parents take on the responsibility accorded them without assuming someone else—grandma, a social worker, a food-service employee—will provide for their children’s basic needs. Too many parents fail to learn to prioritize food, let alone healthy food, for their children when they expect someone else to spring for lunch, and local program administrators know this. Tragically, many Americans parents—including me for the last few summers—don’t realize that by participating in programs like the SFSP, they’re tacitly acknowledging that they can’t or even shouldn’t take on feeding their children a daily meal or two without someone else selecting and serving the food.
A government that enables parents to skip a basic tenet of their responsibility to their children—feeding them—leaves both parents and children culturally starved for the familial context that best satisfies us. Outside of situations involving criminal behavior, including abandonment and neglect, parents should feed kids because they are responsible for them, because they care for them, because they know they need food and the comfort of knowing they’ll get food on a regular basis from people who love them. Furthermore, a recent study shows children need the unity shared meals engender between multiple generations. When our family shares a meal, our eating together evidences fellowship, or friendly and loving association. My children cannot receive that when a supervising adult, even their own mother, can only direct them to eat, not engage in eating and learning with them. Supervision is not fellowship, as Oliver Twist knew all too well.
What do most kids hunger for? I doubt most would desire parent-free lunches. My suspicion is that if adults would be included in the free-food-for-all, most parents would still stay away. Many would be working, either out of necessity, personal desire, or both. Others would be relieved to have an hour free from the kids and embarrassed to confront the social stigma, however slight, of free lunch, or even understandably hesitant to sit down to eat with a bunch of kids. As a mom of four young children, I can justify fears that often, mealtimes combine chaos with calm, meltdowns with laughter, usually with minute-by-minute (or even second-by-second) variations. So even with free food, I know adults aren’t going to flock to the picnic tables. The problem is that programs like the SFSP can only increase in size to maintain their funding levels, and in so doing, they inevitably take on more and more responsibility for families. In the meantime, families will give up more and more control if they do not or cannot weigh the long-term costs.
I know there’s no easy fix to either parental irresponsibility or government enablers. In our post-postmodern culture, we too often think we need to create some kind of program, some planned, bureaucratic fix, to tackle problems. But maybe the response of thoughtful, responsible parents to the SFSP and government offerings like it should reflect the philosophy of the slow-food and local-food movements: think and act slowly, small, and local. Consider our children’s immediate and long-term needs alike. Consider their food and where and how they consume it as we act as their primary role models. With this in mind, I for one will boycott the government picnic this summer and feed my children lunches at home, where we can eat and learn and fellowship together. That’s a choice I won’t find hard to swallow.