THIS ASSAULT on America's children will be stopped," declared Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont. Vermont's governor, Howard Dean, was even more strident: This is "the most despicable, mean-spirited legislative proposal I have seen in all my years of public service," he told the New York Times. "Children will go hungry."
What they are talking about is the plan, by the Republican majority in Congress, to make changes in the way the school lunch program is administered.
Here is an issue tailor-made for Democrats and the interest groups they represent.
Can anyone, even a Republican, possibly be against providing hot, nutritious meals to impoverished schoolchildren?
The answer, quite simply, is no. And that is why programs like this one have gone on and on, getting bigger with each passing year. Skeptics and budget watchers have been intimidated by those, like Governor Dean, who claim moral superiority and challenge the human kindness of anyone who asks questions.
But questions do need to be asked, because things are not what they seem.
As it is currently organized, the federally subsidized school lunch program is not just providing nutritious meals to poor children. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 59 percent of America's schoolchildren are participating in the program. Only about 15 percent of America's children are poor.
Under existing regulations, promulgated by the federal government, a child is eligible for free school lunches if his family income is at or below 130 percent of the poverty line. That is not objectionable -- though we should keep in mind that the poverty rate is calculated without including such benefits as housing subsidies and food stamps.
Additionally, children whose families earn between 130 percent and 180 percent of the federally established poverty line are eligible to receive lunches at reduced cost.
But those are not the only children who participate. Any child who attends a school that receives funds for subsidized school lunches may buy a lunch -- and that lunch will be subsidized to some extent by the federal and state governments. Moreover, funding is supplied based on meals served. So the more kids who eat subsidized food, the more money the school district gets.
In fiscal year 1994, the federal government appropriated $4.3 billion for the school lunch program. The states spent additional funds. The appropriation for 1996 will be $6.7 billion. This is in addition to the more than $25 billion that is spent annually on food stamps. Someone who wanted to be truly obstreperous might ask why the meals of poor kids are being subsidized twice, once by food stamps and again by the school lunch program.
But those of us with more even dispositions merely note that the school lunch program is subsidizing lunches (and breakfasts) for a lot of kids who clearly don't need the help.
Taxpayers are the losers. Who benefits? As it happens, one group that benefits is a traditionally Republican constituency -- farmers. If middle-class kids are getting subsidized peanut butter and jelly, there are peanut farmers and grape growers who are being paid to provide them.
And perhaps that explains a mystery: The Republicans in Congress have endured the curses and insults of the Democrats, but they haven't even proposed a substantive reform of the program! All the Republicans have sought to do is wrap the school lunch program into a block grant and permit the states to set their own nutrition standards.
The school lunch program has become obese. It deserves to be cut radically, so that only poor kids are eligible. But don't hold your breath, because some of the people who've been fed by the school lunch program are Republican farmers.
Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.