Posted on August 1, 2014 | 2 Comments
by Linda Herman, LMHC
How many of you remember what you had for summer lunches at home when you were in grade school, or high school for that matter? I know we ate plenty of bologna sandwiches, peanut butter and jelly, and leftover ham in ham sandwiches. If my mother was home, she’d have us eat celery, a carrot, or an apple. Then we’d chase it down with a glass of milk. If there were cookies in the house, we’d have one or two of those.
Nothing fancy, but it worked and we grew up okay. My mother, a high school graduate, knew that feeding her children was an essential part of her “job”. If she wasn’t at home, she made sure there were some basics in the cupboard.
But the lunchtime landscape has changed. At various sites in communities around the country, anyone 18 and younger can show up and get a nutritious midday meal for free through the USDA Summer Food Programs. “Kids” can’t take the food home. The overseers of the programs want to make sure that the children are getting the food. And of course, parents are not eligible for these lunches.
The reasoning behind these programs is simple: Help the children stay nutritionally safe while school is out.
But the ramifications of these programs are complex.
As a therapist, I am tuned in to underlying messages in our actions as individuals and as a nation. So it was with interest and care that I considered some of the messages within a seemingly well-intended program.
- What strikes me first is the idea that parents cannot figure out how to put a simple, but nutritious lunch on the table for their children. Is the takeaway here that we have so little faith in our nation’s mothers and fathers that the government has to see that kids eat properly? If that is the case, then we are in trouble.
- Whose job is it to be absolutely sure that their children eat? If we assume that indeed parents are bright enough to know how to put a meal together, then why wouldn’t loving parents do their absolute best to make that happen? Is there an underlying message that today’s parents don’t care? Since the programs are designed for less affluent people, do we conclude that they care less for their kids than do more affluent parents? If that is the conclusion, I’d say that’s a pretty negative stereotype of the nation’s less economically fortunate.
Not only are there underlying messages being conveyed, but there are unintended consequences as well.
- First, feeding one’s children is a basic parental function of humans and across species. Having the government step in and take on that role robs parents of the opportunity to be responsible in this area for their kids. It makes it easier for parents to disconnect and just send the kids off to eat elsewhere and assume that someone else needs to make the meal happen.
- As I hope I am conveying frequently in my blogs, doing more and more for people never leads to greater independence and empowerment. Rather the opposite occurs.
Not only does increasing “help” of this kind undermine family function, it creates more dependence, in this case on the government.
- Who would be willing to be the “bad guy” to stop such programs if the government ran out of money? Have you ever started saying “no” to someone who is used to getting something? My guess is that these lunches are here to stay.
Lest you see me as heartless, let me make a few closing comments. I have great faith in people to do the right thing when called upon to do so, and that includes taking care of their families. If indeed, people have neither the means nor the mindset to make a healthy lunch, then perhaps the moneys for the program would be better spent in inviting parents in to learn food preparation tips and giving them ingredients to take home and do it themselves.
Even if it is not on the approved list of nutritious meals, having a homemade peanut butter and jelly sandwich on occasion might work just fine.