When Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday, she began her remarks with a brief introduction.
“I’m Betsy DeVos. You may have heard some of the ‘wonderful’ things the mainstream media has called me lately,” she said. “I, however, pride myself on being called a mother, a grandmother, a life partner, and perhaps the first person to tell Bernie Sanders to his face that there’s no such thing as a free lunch.”
While DeVos’ “free lunch” statement was a joke meant to make her right-wing audience chuckle and to highlight the price tag on government programs, her choice of words was very troubling to many parents, educators and child welfare advocates.
Because the fact of the matter is, for millions of children in the United States ― all of whom she’s pledged to serve as education secretary ― there is such a thing as a free lunch. And the important role it plays in their education and well-being is no laughing matter.
In 1946, President Truman signed the National School Lunch Act, which established the National School Lunch Program. The meal program provides free and reduced-price lunches to children from low-income backgrounds. In 2012, more than 31 million children received meals through the program on a daily basis.
For many of these children, that free lunch at school is the only meal they will eat that day. According to the nonprofit No Kid Hungry, about 13 million kids in the U.S. struggle with hunger. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that the amount of public school students living in poverty rose from 17 percent to 22 percent between 2000 and 2013.
Knowing the importance of free lunch programs, many Twitter users criticized DeVos’ choice of phrase as “ignorant” and chastised her for using a reality faced by so many children in poverty as a punchline for a joke.
Many pointed to DeVos’ affluent background as a billionaire heiress from one of Michigan’s most powerful families.
Some have defended the education secretary’s comment by suggesting she was not literally talking about free lunch programs, but rather using the old adage to speak more broadly about government spending and role of taxpayer dollars.
However, legislative efforts over the past year show that lunch programs may end up on the chopping block. In April, the House of Representatives introduced a bill that would scale back the number of free meals offered at schools in the U.S.
In light of DeVos’ remarks, educators, parents and former students are speaking out in defense of the National School Lunch Program and stressing the adverse effects of having hungry children in classrooms.
Writer Charles Clymer pushed back by launching a Twitter campaign with the hashtag #FeedTheKids.
This is certainly not the first time DeVos has come under fire. She has received a great deal of criticism for her lack of experience in public education, support for funneling taxpayer dollars into privately run schools, failure to study basic education policy concepts, and position as a billionaire donor who backed many of the GOP senators who voted to confirm her.
Many have also pointed to her past comments that suggest she wants to use the U.S. education system to advance a Christian agenda and build “God’s kingdom.”
After all, as Jesus famously said, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”