A ballroom full of county officials was awaiting House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) on Monday when the kitchen doors burst open to reveal about 500 protesters waving empty lunch trays and chanting, "No more cuts."
The demonstrators, many carrying small children, took over the head table and jammed the aisles, protesting reductions in the school lunch program.
"Don't take the food out of the children's mouths," said Maxine Nelson of Pine Bluff, Ark., who, like the others, belongs to the Assn. of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN.
Faced with the raucous protest, luncheon organizers from the National Assn. of Counties abandoned plans for speeches by Gingrich and others before the 2,000 county officials. The demonstrators cheered the decision.
District police officials said no one was arrested.
Last week, House Republicans advanced a proposal to replace the federally mandated school lunch program with a state-administered system funded by federal block grants. Opponents said it could lead to cuts in free and subsidized school lunches to the poor.
The legislation would increase spending by 4.5% per year, but opponents say that would not keep pace with demand coupled with inflation.
The demonstrators at the Washington Hilton Hotel were "just tragically misinformed," Gingrich later told reporters. "Why weren't they at work? Who are they? Who paid them? They broke into the meeting and had bullhorns, and their idea of a dialogue was to chant with bullhorns. I thought that was an interesting commentary on those who would extort money out of the taxpayer."
Some demonstrators shouted through bullhorns that the cost of one of the baked chicken meals at the luncheon probably would finance a week of school lunches.