Washington, DC -- With indignation rising by the minute against the Bush administration, it's easy to forget that in some matters of state, socially minded Canadians ought not to be too self-righteous. Americans just finished celebration of National School Breakfast Week recently, and while we love to take our digs at the excesses of U.S. free enterprise, it's sobering to realize Yanks feed school kids as government policy while we feed them catch-as-catch-can.I'm here in a United Methodist church near Capitol Hill with a coalition of groups aiming to expand the reach of the Child Nutrition Act, which is coming up for re-authorization and funding over the next few months. Food activists want to build on the national consensus behind funded school meals to end means tests.
Currently, the U.S. government mandates over $32 billion a year to feed 15 million school kids for free or at deeply subsidized rates. Any time conservative Republicans have tried to cut this back, they've ended up retreating before storms of protest.
Why is it that social welfare types to the north can't score a similar national commitment? American behaviour is often hard to understand, because we tend to take their private-enterprise rhetoric at face value. The U.S. actually has a higher rate of government ownership than socialist Sweden, never mind Canada. All those schools, jails, police, the military, the space program, homeland security, border patrols -- that's all government-owned.
South of the border, the welfare state is never far from the warfare state. The original school lunch law in the U.S. was adopted in 1946 as a "measure of national security," as the military tried to deal with the large number of would-be recruits rejected on grounds of poor health. That's why there's so much talk about strong (rather than healthy or fit) bodies and such a fixation on protein and iron from beef in the dominant food culture, and so little talk about breaking bread.
Nevertheless, the principle of collective responsibility for school meals is established -- in contrast to Canada, where our programs are run at the discretion of local boards and schools and the funding is both minimal and fragile. Toronto's school eats are 48 per cent funded by the city and the province; the rest comes from fees or parental fundraising. And now that more schools want to serve meals, the fund is actually short by 19 per cent.
Dr. Michael Murphy of Harvard medical school, the leading expert in the field, shows that distress suffered by hungry children -- from anemia to depression, and from low math scores to high rates of discipline problems -- go away when free meals for all are served. "It's not slam-dunk science," he says sportingly, "but if you do a meal program, things get better."
It's no accident that many of the food meetings I attended in Washington were in the United Methodist headquarters, perched right next to the Supreme Court and just across from Capitol Hill, built there a hundred years ago so church members could lobby for the prohibition of alcohol. After all, the U.S. welfare state, unlike Canada's, is based on moralizing, one reason the meal programs are means-tested. American social policy always targets widows and orphans and other members of the deserving poor. Innocent children should be helped to make their way ahead, but adults can look after themselves. Help for the poor comes in the form of food stamps, a way to make sure money goes to a good cause and isn't wasted on booze. (Canada accomplished the same goal by sending cheques to mothers -- thus mothers' allowance.)
In Europe, by contrast, social welfare states emerged in the context of the struggle to create an environment where workers, employers and governments could avoid chronic conflict. Programs there are usually universal, not targeted to the poor -- deserving or otherwise -- and are often associated with economic planning.
Canada, as might be suspected, is somewhere in the middle. Religion is a big part of the left scene here, and European-style planning has never figured large. But our route to a social welfare state rejected targeted social policies because they were inefficient.
At present, many ingredients for U.S. school meals come from unsold processed farm surplus the government buys up. That way, the surplus is kept off the market and prices don't collapse. "I never knew how socialism applied to food until I saw America," I enjoyed teasing my U.S. hosts.
But most of the surplus comes from corporate farms and is high in fat, sugar and salt. Fresh fruits and veggies are as rare as hens' teeth. This is something Farm To School, now in place in 165 school districts, hopes to change by organizing purchases from local family farmers. Piloting a similar program in Canada was supported by federal Liberal MPs assigned to the prime minister's task force on rural affairs (the Speller task force). It never even got a mention in budget debates.