Is the Government Shutting Down Access to Safe and Healthy Food?

Playing politics have put our nation's health at risk.


It didn't take long for consequences of the government shutdown to become evident, especially in the realm of children's health. Terrible stories about sick children being turned away from cancer treatment and Head Start programs closing their doors (along with their feeding programs) have made headlines. Thankfully, the media attention has resulted in action, and private donors are stepping in with a $10 million donation to keep Head Start programs running.

Other consequences aren't so clear, and there's hardly anyone available at the federal level to help us understand what to expect. They've all been sent home, and state and local administrators of federal programs are left to puzzle out what may or may not happen if the shutdown stretches past the next couple of weeks or beyond.

The Information Void

For example, the USDA has shut down its websites, which is the first place administrators of feeding programs and school food programs go when they have questions. This includes the websites of the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program as well as Food and Nutrition Services, which oversees both programs.

[Read: The Case for Sticking With the New School Lunch Program.]

Before the shutdown, FNS distributed a memo letting people know that there is funding to see both programs through to the end of October. After that, many school food-service directors are expecting to use food budget surpluses to extend their breakfast and lunch programs. Districts are allowed to have approximately 90 days of funding in reserve.

But what happens if a district doesn't have a budget surplus? Some districts may be able to lend funding to their food programs (NSLP and SBP funding is separate from all other district funds). But then what happens if the district is poor and doesn't have money to lend? The FNS memo mentions that "limited carryover funding will be available " – but what does that really mean?

The truth is that nothing is clear once we hit November 1, and while many school districts will manage, the poorest ones will most likely struggle to continue food service without interruption. And continuation of food service is crucial in poor districts where the vast majority of children depend on school food for basic nourishment.

[See: Budget-Friendly Foods That Pack a Punch.]

All the Steps of Food Safety

Another concern is food safety. Just two weeks ago, 58,000 pounds of beef intended for the National School Lunch Program were recalled after the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service found bits of plastic in the meat. Thankfully, the inspectors must be in every meat processing plant in the nation by law, so they weren't furloughed, which means domestic meat will continue being inspected. But inspection is only part of the process of keeping school food – and all food – safe. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is the agency that traces outbreaks of foodborne illnesses like salmonella and helps the FSIS locate the source.

As I write this, there's a major outbreak of salmonella in 18 states and the FSIS has stated that it "is unable to link the illnesses to a specific product and a specific production period." It's the job of scientists in CDC labs to figure out the links between distant cases (in this instance, there were cases of illness from Alaska to Connecticut) to determine the source. But the CDC is reduced to a skeletal crew, and up until very recently, there was no one in the labs working on this outbreak.

[Read: Mistakes That Up Your Risk of Food Poisoning.]

As of this writing (Wednesday morning, Oct. 9), CDC food monitoring workers have been called back, but CDC representatives have reported that the government shutdown "slowed its discovery of and response to" the salmonella outbreak. There is no question that playing politics has put our nation's health at risk.

[See: Fresh Fish Shouldn't Stink, and Other Rules of Thumb.]

As someone who feeds thousands of children breakfast and lunch each day, I can't help but feel a growing sense of anxiety. I depend on our government structure to work reliably so that I can nourish my students safely, and the government is failing me. I don't need to say that the people we have voted into office need to stop playing politics and run the country. I think we all know this. What I do need to say is that if they don't turn this around quickly, our country's smallest citizens will start going hungry, (the Women, Infants and Children Program has been shut down in North Carolina) and they may start getting sick. Our leaders are gambling with our children's health. That is unconscionable.

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Chef Ann Cooper is a celebrated author, chef, educator and enduring advocate for better food for all children. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Ann has been a chef for more than 30 years, over 15 of those in school food programs. Her books, Bitter Harvest and Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children, established her as a leading advocate for safe, sustainable food. Known as the Renegade Lunch Lady, Ann has been honored by The National Resources Defense Council, selected as a Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellow and awarded an honorary doctorate from SUNY Cobleskill for her work on sustainable agriculture. In 2009, Ann founded Food Family Farming Foundation (F3), a nonprofit focusing on solutions to the school food crisis. F3's pivotal project is The Lunch Box, a web portal that provides free and accessible tools, recipes and resources to support school food reform.