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Devastated Farmers and the School Lunch Program May Be the Key to Control of the Senate and White House

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, File

Big issues like the U.S Postal controversy, riots in major cities, government response to the coronavirus and state of the U.S. economy are going to be the big issues that will move voters this fall, but there are other issues that may move just enough voters to determine control of the White House and the Senate.

One of these issues is the non-controversial National School Lunch Program (NSLP). Back in 1946, the program was created to reimburse local schools when they provide lower income students with free or lower priced meals. The NSLP currently serves over 100,00 schools and almost 30 million kids. When the coronavirus crisis caused many states to shutter schools in March of this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), with the support of Congress, issued a series of waivers that allowed flexibility in the program for the remainder of the school year and into the summer months. The problem today is that bureaucrats in the federal government have slow walked the issuance of waivers for this fall, making it difficult for schools to continue feeding kids.

One reason why this issue has become political, is because struggling agricultural states that rely on these programs are worried that they will further be hurt if waivers are not issued soon. Iowa is a special case, because even though most of the world didn’t notice we were just hit with what is known as an inland hurricane- a “derecho” storm. This storm produced 140 mph winds that lasted forty minutes, wiping out homes, trees, cars, barns, literally anything in its path. Huge oak trees ripped from the ground. In Iowa we’re used to being a “flyover” state and, in pure fashion, most of the coastal elites didn’t notice or care about our storm, but they are likely going to care very soon. The damage is devastating to our crops, and that will be noticed from LA to NYC in due time.

According to KCRG (An Eastern Iowa Station), “early estimates indicated about 10 million acres of farmland across the state sustained damage from the derecho.” Zippy Duvall, the President of the American Farm Bureau said the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on agriculture throughout the nation, “we’re facing a crisis the likes of which none of us has experienced before.” This is not an understatement as you drive the beautiful state of Iowa today. Entire fields of corn lay flat to the ground. I have lived in Iowa for 50 years and I’ve never seen anything like it. NBC News reported that small farmers were left behind in the $16 billion set aside to help the farming industry deal with the virus. It’s a trifecta of death out on the plains of America. Storms, the coronavirus, and ineffective government aid has devastated states that rely on agriculture. 

Not issuing waivers allowing a full implementation of the school lunch program could be the nail in the coffin for a lot of small farmers and farming states during this time of turmoil.

A letter signed by Republican incumbent senators in agricultural states requested USDA issue waivers to “continue to provide the flexibilities needed to enable school food authorities and other (non-school) sponsor organizations to continue to offer meals through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s child nutrition programs.” The senators signing include in danger incumbent Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Steve Daines of Montana, Joni Ernst of Iowa, Cory Gardner of Colorado, Kelly Loeffler of Georgia, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, and Thom Tillis of North Carolina. The farm crisis and the seemingly innocuous school lunch issue is suddenly a life and death political matter for Republicans. Democrats only need to pick up three seats, four if you count Alabama as switching Republican, and assume Joe Biden wins the White House, to wrestle control of the Senate away from Republicans. American farmers are in danger. Republicans need more than a letter to save themselves on this issue. They need action from the USDA.

As an issue, low and struggling middle-income parents are going to be enraged that while the state is shutting down their school, the federal government can’t figure out a way to continue this program. As a conservative, these programs are in need of study, reform and oversight, yet no member of Congress wants to see the lack of waivers used to cut the program at a time when it is needed the most. Americans are hurting bad and now is the time when the government safety net for those in need is required the most. The fact remains that many state and local governments, not parents, are shutting down schools and preventing kids from getting to school to eat lunch, in many cases the best or only meal of the day for low-income families.

As a policy issue, this is a time for the USDA and a bipartisan Congress to solve this problem by making sure the necessary waivers are issued to help hungry kids and our nation’s struggling farmers. As a political issue, a lack of action will cause political problems for the party perceived to be blocking the program this fall. The school lunch program may control the levers of power in Washington, D.C. because of close races in North Carolina, Maine, Iowa and Colorado. Republicans could pay a high price if the Trump administration does not solve this problem ASAP.

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