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Using School Lunch, Republican Attorneys General Target USDA Anti-Discrimination Policy

Twenty-two states are suing the USDA over its non-discrimination policies — potentially leaving schoolkids hungry

Bright yellow cafeteria tray with a square slab of pizza, open milk carton with straw, macaroni and cheese, and glass. Shutterstock

Because it was not enough to try to ban them from playing sports, eliminate access to gender-affirming healthcare, or ban books that include even the mildest of LGBTQ plot lines, Republican attorneys general in 22 states across the country are taking their hatred of queer kids to a whole new level: by targeting the federal free school lunch program.

The National School Lunch Program — which provides free or reduced-price nutritious lunches to families whose incomes are below the federal poverty guideline — is an essential program that fights childhood hunger, serving about 30 million children each year as of 2016. On face, it seems like a program we can all agree is good: Providing school lunch is almost universally lauded as something that improves student learning outcomes and produces long-term social benefits. A 2021 analysis conducted by the Rockefeller Foundation found that every dollar spent on school lunch programs provides $2 in “benefits to society through improvements in health outcomes and poverty reduction.”

But since 1946, when President Harry S. Truman signed the National School Lunch Act into law, school lunch programs have frequently been a target for political fights on both sides of the political aisle — mostly related to differing opinions about what constitutes “big government” and the costs of feeding America’s schoolchildren. First lady Michelle Obama made varyingly successful attempts to make school lunch healthier, with pushback from lawmakers and some cafeteria workers balking over nutritional requirements. Ghouls like Ronald Reagan have long chipped away at federal funding of the program: Reagan argued in the 1980s that the federal government shouldn’t subsidize meals for children who were not able to pay and attempted to classify ketchup as a vegetable in order to cut program costs. (Cost-cutting concerns continue; in March, funding for a COVID-19 relief program that provided school lunch to all children regardless of income level was eliminated.)

This time around in the political battle, 22 states, including Texas, Indiana, Florida, and Tennessee, have joined a lawsuit against the United States Department of Agriculture over its new mandate that prohibits discrimination against gender identity or sexual orientation in school lunch programs that receive agency funding. The USDA’s new non-discrimination policy also requires that school lunch program administrators investigate allegations of discrimination, and post signage that announces the non-discrimination policy. It applies to all schools, including day care centers and nonprofit private schools, that rely on federal funding for their school lunch programs — ie, approximately 95 percent of public schools across the country.

In a statement posted to Twitter, Texas attorney general Ken Paxton accused the Biden administration of using anti-discrimination policies to, essentially, take away children’s lunch money. “I’ve filed my 30th plaintiff-side lawsuit against the Biden admin because nutrition assistance for children in need should not be used as a chip in a political game,” Paxton said. This is, of course, a nonsense argument that attempts to shift blame away from Paxton and his fellow attorneys general, who are seeking — in court — the opportunity to continue enforcing discriminatory policies like investigating parents of transgender children for child abuse and prohibiting them from playing school-sponsored sports, that have made policies like these a necessity in the first place.

The official argument is that attorneys general like Paxton are trying to fight federal government overreach, and that states have the authority to pass laws that discriminate against LGBTQ students if they so choose. But put simply, these lawmakers are attempting to make it more difficult for all children, not just underprivileged LGBTQ kids, to eat lunch at school.

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