School Lunch Fairness

In these final days of Session, we play a General Assembly version of mumbly-peg – or maybe it’s a game of egg toss – as bills fly between House and Senate trying to beat the certain legislative death of sine die. One such bill is a k-12 school nutrition bill sponsored by Sen. Katrina Shealy (R – Lexington).

Sen. Shealy’s bill updates our state code to reflect current Federal school lunch requirements. Some argued that the bill was unnecessary since public schools that participate in the federal school lunch program must follow the federal law anyway.  Understanding that the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 drastically changed federal law by giving the USDA greater authority to determine the nutritional value of food served at school, we felt it prudent that the bill should be heard.

The bill came up for a hearing in the k-12 subcommittee that I chair a couple of weeks ago. Rep. John King (D – York) and Rep. Jerry Govan (D – Orangeburg) offered an amendment that addressed “differentiated” lunches that are served to students who participate in the reduced-fee lunch program but forget their lunch money.  Their amendment was simple. All students, regardless of whether they participate in the free lunch program or the reduced-fee lunch program, will receive the same nutritious lunch. Their amendment eliminates the “cheese sandwich” lunch that some reduced-fee lunch participants are given.

After considering their amendment and thinking back to my own experience in school of never knowing what students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, I realized that the school districts were shaming the students for the irresponsible behavior of their parents. The school districts had turned a cheese sandwich into a type of scarlet letter, but were making the wrong person suffer the humility for it.  After some debate between members, the nutrition bill and amendment passed favorably out of the subcommittee. The bill was to be heard at our next full Education Committee meeting.

In the intervening time, several school districts complained about the potential cost of serving a higher-grade lunch rather than the cheese sandwich option. They claimed that this bill would be just another unfunded mandate from the state that they can’t afford. This amendment was not about unfunded mandates. The issue before us is about parental responsibility and equal access to a nutritious lunch.

Another fact to consider are the current reimbursement rates from the federal government to each school district for the meals served in the school lunch program. There are several rates available but the range for the year ending June 30, 2016 are as follows:

  • Lunch fully paid by student: Feds reimburse $.29 to $.43 per lunch
  • Reduced-fee lunch to student: Feds reimburse $2.67 to 2.90 per lunch
  • Free lunch to student: Feds reimburse $3.07 to $3.30 per lunch

The actual cost difference to the student between the reduced-fee lunch and the free lunch is $.40. Let me repeat that. Students participating in the reduced-fee lunch program only pay forty cents for lunch.

To confirm these amounts, I looked at the Greenville County School District website for their published school lunch cost. They charge $2.20 for the fully paid lunch and $.40 for the reduced-fee lunch. The difference between the $2.20 charged for a fully paid lunch and the federal reimbursement of $3.07 for a free lunch brings a host of questions to mind, but that will be for a later discussion.

Now back to the subject at hand. Remember that we are talking about a nutrition bill that, in theory, was designed to encourage students to eat healthier so that their chances of succeeding in school would improve – and some school districts are opposed to that. Never mind that more enlightened school districts in other states have developed procedures to collect lunch money from parents and not humiliate the student . . . or serve them a cheese sandwich. The Stokes County School District guidelines up near Pilot Mountain in North Carolina are a good example. I suspect a lingering Mayberry effect at work there.

The bill with amendment passed favorably out of the Education Committee and will be debated before the full House this week. The school districts and other lobbying groups have increased their pressure on House members to remove the amendment.

Considering that we are in an election year, this debate could turn into a story worthy of Dickens. Some of our wealthier school districts could be revealed to have attitudes more akin to 19th century workhouses than to 21st century models of educational opportunity. Maybe these districts just see another Oliver Twist when they slap down a cheese sandwich (not even grilled? as my ten year old asked) on a student’s reduced-fee lunch plate despite their lofty nutrition statements. And the best question of all: Which House member will vote against a hungry student and reveal themselves to be an authentic Mr. Bumbles, the misguided workhouse bureaucrat who refused young Oliver a little more food?

Bumping Old Hickory

And Jesus said as recorded in Mathew 22, “Show me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny. And he said unto them, whose is this image and superscription? They said unto him, Caesar’s. Then said he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”

Imagine Tony Soprano pulling a fist-sized money roll from his pocket to pay off some corrupt politician . . . say, to influence a judicial election. As Tony peels off a few C-notes, he sees that Benjamin Franklin’s serene face has disappeared. He says to his capo, Paulie Walnuts, “Paulie! What did they do to Ben Franklin? They’ve replaced him with somebody I don’t know.” Of course, Paulie doesn’t know either. He’s not the brightest gangster on The Sopranos having once stolen a truck full of walnuts that he thought were televisions. Though an imaginary story, Tony reflects how most people will react when Harriet Tubman booty-bumps Old Hickory to the back of the $20 bill.

The impending Tubman ascendancy used to happen more frequently. The Treasury Department has featured a variety of historical figures on our currency since they began printing paper money in 1861. It was not until 1928 that they downsized the dimensions of the bills and standardized who was on the front of each.

Currently, the Treasury circulates twelve different denominations and only three feature portraits of non-Presidents. We are familiar with Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Hamilton, Jackson, Grant and Franklin getting us from $1 to $100. All were Presidents except Hamilton and Franklin. Hamilton was the first Secretary of the Treasury. Franklin was too old to run for President after fighting a revolution and founding our Republic.

We are less familiar with who fronts the $500, $1,000, $5,000, $10,000 and $100,000 bills. These bills are not currently printed though some are still circulated. So, following after Franklin, we see William McKinley, Grover Cleveland, James Madison, Salmon Chase and Woodrow Wilson. With the exception of James Madison, the Treasury Department must have put the 1928 JV team on the larger denominations. McKinley, Cleveland and Wilson were notable in their day but certainly aren’t in the same class as Washington, etal.

Then we have Salmon Chase. He was the Treasury Secretary under Lincoln and oversaw the issuance of the first paper currency. Until 1861, the Treasury had only issued coins.

The original series of paper bills approved by Chase in 1861 had several distinctions with the most visual being their color. They were printed on green paper, earning them the name of “greenbacks.”

Greenbacks were excellent propaganda pieces. Lincoln fronted the $10 bill and Chase the $1, replacing Washington as first in the hearts of his countrymen or at least in the hearts of Northern speculators. Jefferson and Madison didn’t make the cut.

Since greenbacks were issued to increase the North’s money supply in response to the South seceding, we shouldn’t be surprised that the Virginia Founders were not honored. Hamilton fronted the $2 and $50. Robert Morris and Albert Gallatin made it along with the American Eagle and “Lady Liberty.” If you don’t know Morris and Gallatin, join the club. I don’t either.

Greenbacks were the United States first “fiat” currency meaning that they were secured by a promise to pay from the United States government rather than secured by gold reserves. Greenbacks were printed in massive amounts to stimulate the North’s wartime economy and their value fluctuated greatly depending upon the outcome of battles and elections.

The issuance of greenbacks after the Southern states seceded was not just a wartime response. It was a first-step policy victory for Northern politicians who had demanded a national banking system since the days of Alexander Hamilton. Prior to 1861, only state chartered banks could issue paper currency backed by gold or silver. With the Southern states no longer represented in Congress, the national banking system was created.

Greenbacks remain the soul of our modern banking system and monetary policy. We see the hand of Salmon Chase every time the Federal Reserve manipulates inflation by controlling our money supply, uses quantitative easing to buy bad debt or considers charging negative interest rates to depositors to encourage lending.

Instead of just replacing Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman, President Obama should demand that our entire Federal Reserve Note series be replaced with a new non-denominated greenback featuring Tubman, Chase, Lincoln and Lady Equality. The new greenback would be secured by our $21 trillion national debt, have a fluctuating value and would require that you pay the bank a fee just to deposit it. No more $1 bills or $20 bills or $100 bills. All bills would be equal though that might take some explaining to Tony Soprano.

Anyway, who wants to see Washington, Jefferson and Madison on our modern currency? They were Founders of an Old Republic long dead and having them remain on our money doesn’t render proper tribute to the narcissistic America that we are becoming.

Come to think of it, does anyone under 30 really care about Harriet Tubman and the struggle for equality that she represents? We are in the Brave New World of individual emancipation. Maybe the Treasury will issue a currency that can upload a selfie.

(An earlier version of this article did not list Hamilton as a non-President.)

No Such Thing as a Free School Lunch

I have a distinct childhood memory of riding through Greer with my brother in his red VW Beetle as he explained the economic concept of “no free lunch.” He was in college and I a mere 16 years younger.

As he droned past the old Hardees on North Main Street, all I could think about was a chocolate milk shake. In those days, Hardees used real ice cream and their shakes came with slightly melted bubbly foam that floated on top. I cared less about its cost than about drinking it. As my brother continued his economic dissertation, the Hardees sign faded in the distance and I learned that there were no free milk shakes either.

Speaking of free lunches, we have a school nutrition bill coming up before my sub-committee this Wednesday. It brings our state code in compliance with the federal code. Several committee members have discussed possible amendments to the bill in response to the varied complaints that we hear about school lunches.

After listening to constituents reflect on their own experiences, I realized that school lunches are reliable memory makers. Most people have a far more vivid recollection of what they ate in school than what they studied in class. I still develop a craving for a peanut butter and honey sandwich every time I’m served a bowl of tomato soup – a favorite from the elementary school that I attended.

Being rural students, we were served pinto beans, turnip greens and cornbread on a fairly regular basis. We sometimes had cobbler. I thought that was fine eating. We were also served fish every Friday – fried, of course – but still a significant ecumenical gesture of brotherly love towards phantom Catholics amidst non-conformists Baptist and Pentecostal students. I was eventually sent to a private religious school miles away where I was disappointed to discover microwaved pizza rectangles. I watched in horror as these city kids poked eyeholes in the pizza and wore them over their faces like pepperoni laden tribal masks. Imagine what they would have done with turnip greens.

To shake off my 1970’s school lunch nostalgia, I spent several hours reading through the recent federal regulations regarding nutritional lunches served in schools and the problems we have with childhood obesity. I didn’t scratch the surface of the number of regulations that have been developed since Congress passed the Healthy Hunger-free Kids Act of 2010.

The regulations are extensive and cover everything from determining if “smoothies” are considered nutritious to developing equity formulas to ensure that those students who actually pay for school lunches do so with a price adjusted for inflation each year.

The regulations also delve heavily into school “snacks”, an intrusion that continues to bring the most criticism from parents. Since their Smart Snack program caused such confusion, the USDA published a 17 page question and answer guide that clarifies such questions as “if coffee and tea are sold, may students have cream and sweetener?” or “Is a cheese sandwich considered an entree item?” or “Are ice cream products with milk fat listed as their first ingredient allowable as a Smart Snack?” The questions continue with a section on fundraisers, a subject where angels fear to tread.

School lunch programs are nothing new. They have been around since Harry Truman signed the National School Lunch Act in 1946. The programs have gradually expanded so that currently almost 60% of South Carolina’s k-12 students qualify for free or reduced school lunches.

The Healthy Hunger-free Kids Act of 2010 goes beyond expanding coverage and attempts to reduce childhood obesity by defining what can be served to students in local school districts. Whether these intrusive methods will actually work in the long-term remain to be seen but initial polling among parents shows heavy support for reducing childhood obesity, at least until some confused teacher confiscates a student’s homemade oatmeal cookies made by his mother as happened recently in a Greenville elementary school. A confiscated homemade oatmeal cookie reveals more about the intent and reach of the federal government than any other item I can think of.

An almost equal amount of those polled thought that students should get more physical exercise at school, too. How long will that support last once the federal government defines how your child should exercise.

When I think back to my rural elementary school lunches, I don’t remember many obese students or students who refused to eat the school lunch prepared for them. Maybe we were all still too poor not to appreciate a good serving of cornbread and pinto beans. Or maybe we just had parents and brothers who could drive by the local Hardees without stopping while teaching us a common sense lesson in economics, nutrition and avoiding obesity.

Caucus News – Crossover Success

The following report was written by the SC House GOP Caucus

The House of Representatives adjourned for the week after finishing a successful “crossover” period and getting important House legislation moved to the Senate. We’ve nearly completed our agenda with more than a month left in the session. We continue to wait on the Senate to act in many instances so we may give final approval on key items our state so desperately needs as we conduct the business of the people.

But this gets us back to an issue that has been on Republican Caucus agendas since we achieved the House majority in 1994. Our state has one of the longest legislative sessions in the nation, and it’s simply not necessary. As we do every session, the House approved legislation that would shorten the time legislators spend in Columbia by nearly two months, saving taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. We saw a furious amount of work occur in the Senate this week on important issues that have been waiting for their attention, in some cases, for years. Shortening the session would force the Senate to stop wasting taxpayer dollars and get right to work.

The House has approved a retirement system reform package which begins to address the monumental task of bringing our state retirements system into solvency, passed long-needed education reform, sent the Senate a bill to protect minors who are victims of human trafficking and fought Democrats’ attempts to kill a voter identification measure aimed at increasing voter participation.

Here are a few of the items we approved this week with further explanation that you may find of interest:

Safe Harbor for Exploited Minors Act: In many cases when minors are charged with prostitution, they are themselves victims of human traffickers and pimps who by force cause them to break anti-prostitution laws. This new law allows minors to have their charges dropped if they are indeed victims of human trafficking and encourages them to tell prosecutors who enslaved them while also getting them the care as victims which they desperately need such as helping them reunite with their parents or legal guardians where possible.

Adding CWP to Allowable Voter ID Forms: This bill adds Concealed Weapons Permits to the acceptable forms of identification necessary in order for a voter to cast an electoral ballot. The common sense law gives voters yet another option to prove their identity at the polls and will only help expand the number of people able to vote in our elections.

Alimony Reform: This fix revises existing and outdated spousal alimony laws by allowing a judge to set a reasonable expiration date of alimony payments. This prevents certain individuals from abusing or manipulating the good intentions created through systems of alimony while also removing some outdated language on the matter.

The House of Representatives has a solid record of achievement through the first 14 weeks of session. We continue to protect the citizens of our state and give taxpayers the best value for their tax dollars.

The Roads Bill Amendment

The following is the amendment to the roads bill that the House adopted yesterday. I voted in favor of it.

The bill is still alive and kicking though reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated as Mark Twain might say.

3579 House Amendment #1 – Strike All and Insert

Section 1

All Highway Commissioners are appointed by the Governor, 7 district and 1 state-wide

Keeps the qualifications for Commissioners removed in senate version

Requires that “other demographic factors such as residence in rural or urban areas” be considered

Advice and consent of General Assembly by a roll call vote of both bodies

Commissioners serve four year terms, no more than two consecutive terms, and may not serve more than 12 years, regardless of when the term is/was served (retroactive)

Section 2

Commission appoints a Secretary of Transportation with Advice/Consent of General Assembly by a roll call vote of both bodies

Secretary serves at the pleasure of the Commission

Sections 3

Places the SCDOT Chief Internal Auditor under the State Auditor

Sections 4

Repeals the JTRC code sections and eliminates the Committee

Section 5

Sections 1-4 take effect on July 1, 2016

Members serving on the Commission on June 30, 2016 shall continue to serve until their current term expires, and until their successor is appointed and confirmed
Vacancies are filled by appointment of the Governor, and serve until the end of that unexpired term
Any eligible commissioner may be reappointed by Governor on or after June 30, 2016

Section 6

Before any loan or financial assistance can be provided by the SIB, the board must submit the decision to the DOT Commission for approval, rejection, or a request for additional information from the SIB Board

Does not relate to any payment or contractual obligations that the DOT has to the bank that are pledged to any bonds issued by the bank

Section 7

SIB cannot provide financial assistance for any project below $25 M

Section 8

SIB must follow the Act 114 prioritization criteria
A Joint Resolution for a single, specific project can override this provision

Section 9

Transfers remaining $65 M of auto sales tax revenues from the general fund to the State Highway Fund at the Department of Transportation

Section 10

Except where otherwise provided, this act takes effect on July 1, 2016

The following is what the Senate sent to us after sitting on the bill for a year. Senate Passed version of H-3579 –

Section 1

Commissioners are appointed by the Governor, 7 district and 1 state-wide, with Advice and Consent of the Senate
State-wide appointment serves as Chairman

Requires that “other demographic factors such as residence in rural or urban areas” be considered

Commissioners serve four year terms which expire December 31 of the appropriate year

Commissioners may serve in a hold-over capacity for a maximum of 5 months

Commissioners serve out remainder of current terms

Section 2

Commission appoints a Secretary of Transportation with consultation and approval of the Governor, must have Advice/Consent of the Senate

Section 3

Before any loan or financial assistance can be provided by the SIB, the board must submit the decision to the DOT Commission for approval, rejection, or a request for additional information from the SIB Board

Does not relate to any payment or contractual obligations that the DOT has to the bank that are pledged to any bonds issued by the bank

Section 4

General Assembly must appropriate $400 M to the State Highway Fund

Does not specify recurring/non-recurring

Funds must be contained in W&Ms, House, SFC, Senate and Conference Report of the Appropriations Bill.

Tommy Stringer