Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA), who from 2011 to 2012 chaired the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees funding for school nutrition programs, told party activists that kids receiving free breakfast and lunch should either be asked to pay for part of their meals or earn them by sweeping the floor. The 11-term Congressman, who is seeking his party’s nomination for an open U.S. Senate seat next year, said Saturday that he had suggested the idea to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.
According to the Huffington Post, Kingston told the Jackson County Republican Party that the program that provides children from struggling families with free lunch and breakfast is error-riddled. He then opined that schools should not teach any of the kids, eligible or not, that there is such thing as a “free lunch” in America:
KINGSTON: On the Agriculture Committee, we have jurisdiction over the school lunch. [The] school lunch program has a 16 percent error rate. [The] school lunch program is very expensive. Of course, it looks good compared to the school breakfast program that has a 25 percent error rate. But one of the things I’m talking to the Secretary of Agriculture about: why don’t you have the kids pay a dime, pay a nickle, to instill in them that there is, in fact, no such thing as a free lunch. Or maybe sweep the floor in the cafeteria. And yes, I understand that that would be an administrative problem and I understand that it would probably lose you money — but think what we’d gain as a society in getting the myth out of their head that there is such thing as a free lunch.
Watch the video.
Kingston is not currently on the Agriculture Committee nor the Appropriations Agriculture subcommittee — a Kingston spokeswoman did not respond to a ThinkProgress request for clarification of the comment.
Hunger among American children remains a huge problem: three-quarters of U.S. teachers say they have students who routinely show up to school hungry. Studies have shown that providing breakfast in schools improved student attentiveness, attendance, and test scores — though only half of the students eligible for free breakfast are receiving them. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the error rates include both over-payments and under-payments by the government for the program.
Since paperwork is often an obstacle to access, communities like Boston and Dallas have opted to simply provide free meals to all students, regardless of economic need. But other schools have gone in the opposite direction, including a Dickerson, Texas, middle school that threw away the lunch of a student whose account was 30 cents short.
Kingston’s plan would potentially discourage participation in the program — some kids do not have the five to ten cents for their meals and singling them out as janitors would broadcast to other students which families are the poorest. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 18.9 million students receive free lunches and another 2.6 million receive reduced fee lunches. Last year, Kingston voted for a bill that would have kicked 280,000 low-income out of the program.
Kingston follows in the footsteps of his former colleague, then-Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO), who argued in his own unsuccessful 2012 Senate campaign that the federal government should “end its support for school lunch programs,” because they he believes the program unconstitutional. Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) also argued that it is unconstitutional for the federal government to feed poor students. Another former colleague from Georgia, ex-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R), suggested in his unsuccessful 2012 presidential campaign that kids should become assistant janitors.
Chris Crawford, Kingston’s communication’s director, told the Huffington Post “It is sad that trying to have a productive conversation about instilling a strong work ethic in the next generation of Americans so quickly devolves into the usual name-calling partisan hysteria. Having worked from a young age himself, Congressman Kingston understands the value of hard work and the important role it plays in shaping young people.”