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Hungry kids make better Americans? That's hard to swallow [UPDATED]

July 8, 2009 | 10:23 am

By now you may have heard the tittering and seen the finger-pointing in the direction of Missouri. A Republican state representative named Cynthia Davis offered several news commentaries in her June newsletter – including one questioning the value of free or cheap summer meals for public school students in summer school.

Davis wrote that "bigger governmental programs take away our connectedness to the human family, our brotherhood and our need for one another." Why not "get a job during the summer by the time they are 16" to feed themselves? "Hunger can be a positive motivator." Such programs, she fretted, only increase government spending.

A positive motivator to what? For a 10-year-old to steal a candy bar because there’s nothing to eat at home?

Such programs, she fretted, only increase government spending.

Rep. Davis, you want to see what real increased government spending looks like? Take away the free lunches and breakfasts. Teachers find that hungry kids don't pay much attention in class over the rumble in their bellies. Their grades suffer. They get into fights. If they graduate, they may not go on to college. If they don't graduate, they float through lousy-paying jobs with little or no health insurance and maybe can't afford to feed their own kids properly. That's an expensive cycle to start when you might be able to stop it before it begins, with a banana and a peanut butter sandwich.

All this sounded familiar to me, in a California-flashback fashion, and sure enough, I found it:

In 1994, in a series on hunger, The Times wrote about some California school districts refusing, for politico-philosophical reasons, to serve free or discounted breakfast programs to their students – even though the money was already available, and not out of the districts’ pockets. Two-thirds of the money set aside for student breakfasts in California in 1993 didn’t get spent because not enough districts asked for it – and principals and superintendents like this one made it clear why: "The parents have some responsibility for these kids. It’s not the schools’ job to be all things to all people."

One Orange County principal asked, "What’s next? Are we going to provide housing for these people too?"

Mike Spence, a member of the West Covina school board member and future head of the conservative California Republican Assembly, said then, "The government is trying to usurp the responsibilities of the parent. There is a trend to take over aspects of what the family does." The one self-styled liberal on that board said his colleagues believed that "ultimately, God put parents on this Earth to take care of their children. By God, that is what they should be doing."

This sounded to me then as though parents chose not to feed their children: Oh honey, I thought about making you oatmeal and scrambled eggs this morning, but I just decided not to. Buh-bye, have a good day at school!

If kids don’t eat breakfast at home, it’s probably because there isn’t breakfast at home. Teachers and school nurses reported students fainting and crying from hunger. Some of them said they had only one meal a day, and sometimes two, if you counted the free school lunch. Teachers tried to keep snacks on hand, like peanut butter crackers, when kids couldn’t handle their hunger. And when they did eat, teachers saw the difference in attitude, performance – just about every metric they had.

Now Davis has revived the discussion – I won’t say debate because as far as I’m concerned, that’s like saying ‘’creationism’’ is worth debating vis-a-vis evolution. Just because someone poses a question doesn’t mean that question constitutes any basis in fact. Questioning the need for school meals doesn’t prove that there is no need for them – only that someone’s not paying attention, or chooses not to.

Comedian Stephen Colbert’s TV persona was so taken by Davis’ argument about hunger being a positive motivator that he suggested that Davis hadn’t climbed higher on the political ladder herself because of "the anti-motivating habit of eating." He implored the people of the Show-Me State to help: "If you see Representative Davis at a restaurant or a hot dog stand or even through the window of her own dining room, do the right thing and take her food away."

That goes especially as a motivator for all you hungry kids there in Missouri.

Cynthia davis 70 Updated at 3:49 p.m.: Rep. Davis responded with a statement explaining her stance, which you can download here. It's long, but the first paragraph provides an effective summary:

We all agree on the importance of feeding children, but we differ on who should do this.  I believe this duty belongs to the parents.  Instead of honoring this time honored jurisdiction of the family, the summer feeding program treats families like they do not exist.

Photo courtesy of Rep. Davis' website.

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