Trump’s proposed cut to school meals scheme branded ‘cruel and shameful’

Donald Trump’s plan to cut a school meals programme that has reached 40 million children worldwide has been branded “cruel and shameful” by US lawmakers.

A $182m (£145m) bipartisan US aid enterprise, known as the McGovern-Dole food for education programme, has been described as life-changing by Republican and Democratic senators and members of Congress alike. The scheme, which was established by the late George McGovern and former senator Bob Dole, has helped to promote political, economic and social stability in poor countries.

Jim McGovern, a Democratic congressman on the House committee on agriculture’s nutrition subcommittee, told the Guardian: “It is often the only food a child might receive that day. I have seen how McGovern-Dole helps change lives, improve nutrition, increase school attendance – especially for girls – strengthen schools, families and communities, and advance US interests.

 “For such a small fraction of the US budget, it has had a tremendous impact. President Trump’s proposed cut to this programme is cruel and shameful.”

McGovern said he would be fighting to maintain the “life-changing programme and the incredible work it does”.

Congressman Jeff Merkley, a Democratic senator for Oregon, said ending a food aid programme at a time when 20 million people face starvation was “immoral and stupid”.

Dole, a Republican party stalwart and Trump supporter, has accused the president of threatening “one of the proudest achievements in my lifetime”. In a statement this week in the Washington Post, Dole criticised proposals to cut the project.

“Eliminating the McGovern-Dole programme would have a disastrous effect on the planet’s most vulnerable children,” Dole said.

Trumps’s 2018 budget proposes to eliminate the programme, citing concerns that it “lacks evidence that it is being effectively implemented to reduce food insecurity”.

Jerry Moran, a Republican senator for Kansas, said: “I will continue working to prioritise funds to ensure the United States is leading in the fight against global hunger.”

As chair of a Senate subcommittee on agriculture, Moran approved legislation to increase funding to the programme by $10m.

UN agencies and humanitarian groups have described the programme as “extremely significant” and “catalytic” in helping developing country governments to assist their own people.

“We are concerned at any indication of cutting food assistance, especially at a time when one famine has been confirmed and we are facing three others,” said Jon Brause, the World Food Programme’s (WFP) office director in Washington.

Brause said the McGovern-Dole project helps to bridge the divide between humanitarian aid and development, and has a tangible impact on girls being brought into school.

“It is a global good. The McGovern-Dole programme is a catalyst to show and assist governments in how they can take care of their most vulnerable people. It is striving not just to provide school meals but as a platform for a broader feeding programme.”

The WFP is one of 11 organisations that funds McGovern-Dole and runs projects in 14 countries, including Kenya, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Bangladesh. In Kenya, the government is beginning to take over the enterprise, while in Rwanda the governmenthas started to use its own food, he said.

According to a report by USAid, the US development agency, the programme has increased levels of school enrolment (pdf) in Ethiopia’s Somali state from 64% to almost 100%.

However, the programme is not without its critics. In 2011, the US government accountability office found that USAid had not done enough to evaluate and monitor its partner organisations.

The Heritage Foundation, a conservative organisation, said it duplicates efforts of other USAid projects, and some conservative lawmakers have said it is not tied to a specific national security interest.

Supporters and those who work with the programme on the ground say it is unique in addressing both nutrition and education. Bill O’Keefe, vice-president of government relations at Catholic Relief Services (CRS), described it as extremely significant.

He said: “On the surface it provides a school lunch for kids. What that means in a country like Mali is that 72,000 primary school students whose families would have them work on their farms are going to school.”

The programme has provided an entry point for quality education, teacher training, community involvement and to give a future to children in places like Mali, where insurgency has closed 300 schools. O’Keefe said CRS would be lobbying Congress to fight the planned cuts.

The budget has yet to be passed by Congress, where the McGovern-Dole programme has strong bipartisan support and backing from charities, religious groups and the US farming community.

Although Trump has proposed cuts of almost a third to foreign aid, his 2018 budget document also states it “allows for significant funding of humanitarian assistance, including food aid, disaster and refugee programme funding”.