Congressman in School Lunch Line

Friday, November 2, 2012

This is going to sound ungrateful, though I don't intend it to be.

If Steve King was going to visit a Storm Lake school, I wish he would have done it earlier, or waited a few days longer.

Because whether it was meant to be or not, a visit this week can be seen as a crafty campaign ploy, using naive children as a photo op in the last days of a race that looks to be skin-of-the-teeth tight.

I know some parents were upset, feeling their children were used, and saying that they were not notified that their children were to be involved in a political appearance - and they have fair reason.

King visited the kids at school lunch, as he pushes for his legislation to undo mandates for extremely leaner meals that he attributes to Michelle Obama, wife of the president of the opposing party. He and his opponent recently clashed over school lunches in a debate.

I know a schools visit has been in the works for a while, and I would like to think it is just a coincidence that it should work out just before an election in which King is facing his toughest competition of his political career. Or that it at least has more to do with logistical timing for his hopes on his school lunch bill than it does with squeezing out a few votes by appearing in a picture with children.

I do hope this doesn't come off as too ungrateful - after all, Storm Lake is King's hometown, and in his defense, he has visited here to showcase certain issues several times far removed from an election season. And both he and his opponent Christie Vilsack are making election eve appearances again shortly before the vote - appropriately at respective campaign headquarters.

No matter who wins the election, we should appreciate when people like the governor or members of our Congressional delegation make time to come to our community. It gives us a voice to some extent, and the more leaders see of the realities of communities like Storm Lake, in theory at least, the better equipped they are to make wise votes on issues that impact people in rural Iowa.

Politicians in schools? Not a bad thing at all - if they are there to learn about how the issues effect the front lines of education and caring for our children, not for publicity and votes.

Heck, it wouldn't be a bad thing for whoever wins the race to eat lunch with children at school somewhere once a week or once a month. There are a lot of issues and needs in education out there, and it wouldn't do D.C. folk harm to spend more time with the children and teachers they represent and less with lobbyists. Wouldn't be a bad thing for a city council member or mayor to have a regular lunch date at school, either, and for a school board member, it should be almost mandatory.

I've told this story before, but indulge me, because it will always be the measuring stick I hold up to anyone who presumes to be a public servant.

I grew up not far from here, in the time when kids actually walked to and from school. In the case of the route we traveled, traffic was fast and heavy. My grandmother, something of an activist, protested to the shool board and the city that safety crossings were needed to keep little kids from getting turned into hamburger as they made their way to class.

Oh no, that kind of thing takes too much money. There are budgets and procedures and regulations that you don't understand, it simply can't be done.

The next Monday at 6:59 a.m., there was a knock on the door. I, about age 6 I believe, opened the door and looked waaay up into the craggy face of a man I took to be about 300 years old and around nine feet tall, at the time (I might have been off by a couple of years and a couple of inches, I realize now) wearing a no-nonsense business trench coat, mirror-shiny shoes and a gray Tom Landry hat.

"I'm here to walk to school with you," he said. And he did. The old man and our little knot of kids from the wrong side of the tracks made the long walk every morning for a month that winter. We had some good talks. Had to climb snowbank and ford puddles, and his nice shoes didn't remain shiny even one day.

The man, name of Ed Breen, was the boss of a tiny little independent TV station of the kind they had in Iowa towns then, and a member of the school board whose other members had ignored my grandmother's plea.

At the end of the month, Ed crashed open the door of the school board chambers and before the meeting even started, came thundering down on the stunned group.

"You WILL not put children's lives in danger. You WILL get a safety crossing put in, and you WILL do it NOW."

They did, too, with no excuses. I don't know how, but it only took a few days to have a light up, and a crossing guard. Ed walked with us until it was done, standing in the middle of the road with his arms crossed and feet spread wide until every kid had crossed, daring any impatient driver to even think about revving an engine.

My grandmother wanted to write a letter to the editor to say how wonderful Mr. Breen had been. He just put a finger to his lips - shhh - shook his head no, and smiled a craggy old smile.

Until I spilled the beans, long after his death, nobody ever knew what he had done. He wasn't acting for notoriety, or votes. But he got one at least, because my grandmother proudly re-told that story through the rest of her life.

The school lunch thing, it just needs some common sense. Mrs. Obama and others are right, better nutrition in schools was needed and is for the good. And if lunches now are leaving kids hungry, King and others are right too, adjustments are needed, right now.

Should it take partisan battling and legislating? Pfft, no. We're all on the same side, and it shouldn't be political at all to feed children. If we can't just sit down together and work that out, God help us.

Thanks for coming, politicians. We just urge you to make sure it's always for the best of reasons.