Why Isn’t the School Meal Program Serving Only Those in Need?

COMMENTARY Agriculture

Why Isn’t the School Meal Program Serving Only Those in Need?

May 14th, 2021 3 min read

Commentary By

Daren Bakst @darenbakst

Senior Research Fellow in Regulatory Policy Studies

Jonathan Butcher @JM_Butcher

Will Skillman Fellow in Education

Should the federal government take the hard-earned dollars of American families and use it to give welfare to the middle-class and wealthy? JGI / Tom Grill

Key Takeaways

The Biden administration and some legislators would like to turn the needs-based federal school meal programs into a blanket entitlement: free school meals for all.

This irresponsible use of taxpayer dollars undermines the integrity of federal school meal programs.

Welfare dollars should be devoted to helping those in need and not diverted away from helping low-income families.

Should the federal government take the hard-earned dollars of American families and use it to give welfare to the middle-class and wealthy?

The answer should be obvious: Of course not. This turns welfare on its head.

Welfare is supposed to serve as a safety net for those in need. But the Biden administration and some legislators would like to turn the needs-based federal school meal programs into a blanket entitlement: free school meals for all.

The push for universal free school meals isn’t new. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 created a controversial provision known as the community eligibility provision—a key component of the free-for-all school meal movement.

>>> A Critical Fix to the Federal Overreach on School Meals

It allows schools or school districts with just 40% of its student population eligible for certain federal welfare programs to provide free meals for all of its students, regardless of whether the students come from low-income families.

But even this wasn’t good enough for some. The U.S. Department of Agriculture then took a very expansive, and likely unlawful, interpretation of the community eligibility provision to make it possible for school districts to group schools together to reach the 40% threshold.

Here’s how it works: school districts can take a school with a very high in-need student population and combine it with a school where every student could literally come from a wealthy family. And if that 40% threshold is reached across both schools, then every student from the “wealthy school” can receive free meals.

This irresponsible use of taxpayer dollars undermines the integrity of federal school meal programs.

But instead of stopping this practice, the Biden administration would make matters worse. Its so-called American Families Plan would make it even easier to not use taxpayer resources for children in need. For example, it would lower the 40% low-income student requirement to just 25% in elementary schools.

Policymakers need to put a stop to this continued effort to push for universal free school meals. Welfare shouldn’t be turned into an entitlement program for the wealthy. Nor should the federal government try to create greater dependence on government, which is exactly what the community eligibility provision does.

Ideally, the community eligibility provision should be repealed. But if it remains, then it should be applied properly, as Congress intended. Free school meals should go to all students in a school only when that school’s student body meets the 40% threshold requirement, or if the entire school district meets this requirement.

The existing National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program are already some of the most wasteful programs in Washington, according to federal auditors. In recent years, the lunch program has accounted for nearly $1 billion in annual improper payments—assistance to students who are not eligible for these meals.

The universal free school effort would address this problem not by ensuring that there are no longer improper payments, but by just declaring that payments going to upper-income families are now just fine. It isn’t a solution, but a way to avoid having to come up with a solution.

Inevitably, universal free school meal proponents will assert that any changes limiting the scope of the community eligibility provision will reduce the number of children receiving free meals. It’s a cute game to make it look like anyone who opposes universal free school meals wants to take food from children. It’s malarkey, of course.

>>> Congress Has to Avoid Universal Free School Meals Which Include Wealthy

Giving welfare to students who don’t need it deprives them of nothing. It does, however, needlessly expand a notoriously wasteful program while allowing federal officials to abdicate their responsibility to keep track of which students need assistance.

The integrity of the school meal system shouldn’t be compromised by such games. Welfare dollars should be devoted to helping those in need and not diverted away from helping low-income families.

Ironically, many of the same people arguing for universal free school meals would be the first to complain about how government works for the wealthy and not low-income families. Yet that is exactly what they are doing with the community eligibility provision and this push for universal free school meals.

It’s past time to get federal school meals back on track and serving its intended recipients: those in need.

This piece originally appeared in The Sacramento Bee