The ongoing fight over the USDA's controversial National School Lunch Program reached new depths this week, as Republicans in Congress and First Lady Michelle Obama argued openly over the direction the trouble program should take.
Mrs. Obama made herself the public face of a series of recent changes to the decades-old program. Those changes include requiring that students receive fruit and vegetables, and swapping out white flour for whole-wheat flour.
But the results of these changes have been nothing short of disastrous, something I've written about several times. They include higher food costs and a tragic increase in food waste (generated by kids who are seemingly choosing to go hungry rather than be forced to eat the new food options).
They've also meant that countless parents and more than 1 million students have voted with their mouths, leaving the school lunch program in unprecedented droves last school year.
According to USDA data, the number of students paying full price for school lunches now stands at 9.2 million, the lowest figure in recorded history. In short, kids whose families can afford for them to avoid school lunches do just that.
All of this means the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, as the changes were billed in Congress, might have been more accurately promoted instead as the Hungry School Kids Act.
The struggling school lunch program is on its heels. But, as I noted recently, Mrs. Obama has decided, in the face of withering criticism, that the program should be expanded.
The House thinks otherwise, and voted Thursday, in what the Washington Post called "a rebuke of sorts to the first lady," to slow down changes to the school lunch program.
The House plan would "let cash-strapped schools opt out of the nutrition regulations via waiver."
But Mrs. Obama is having none of this, blasting House Republicans. Her message? Opposing her politicization of food is political.
"The last thing we can afford to do right now is play politics with our kids' health," she said.
She's right. The House GOP is playing politics. They're just not doing it as pervasively—or as deftly—as she and her colleagues are.
Last week, for example, the USDA put out a panicked press release defending the program. This week, it was USDA secretary Tom Vilsack and former secretary Ann Veneman penning a joint op-ed in The Hill that blasted school lunch politics.
Mrs. Obama herself took to the pages of the New York Times this week to defend the school lunch program, though she failed to address any of the legitimate concerns—ones raised by, among others, the editors of the Los Angeles Times—about food waste and the environment.
Like so many food fights in Washington, this latest series of political volleys is really just another battle over the proper role of big government. Conservatives and others who oppose the current school lunch program and who want to roll back the program to what it looked like several years ago are simply supporting a government program that failed years ago, while Mrs. Obama wants to expand the program that's failing right now.
Currently, under the program, the USDA reimburses schools $2.93 for every free lunch served, and lesser amounts for meals paid for wholly or in part. As a general rule, for every three dollars the federal government spends on school lunches, two dollars goes to overhead, while just a dollar goes to food.
The only certain (and continuing) losers in this battle are America's schoolchildren and its taxpayers.
It doesn't have to be that way, though. Alternatives exist. Communities can take charge. Or the federal government could just give cash to families in need. Giving $2 per student per meal would double what the government's spending on food while still save billions in overhead costs.
The USDA National School Lunch Program doesn't need to be expanded. It doesn't need to be slowed. It needs to be abolished.