It's Clear the Federal Government Shouldn’t Be Involved in the School Lunch Business

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If nothing else, the federal shutdown has succeeded in drawing attention to the many programs and services under government control.

One of these is the USDA’s National School Lunch Program, which has been providing government-issued meals to American schoolchildren since 1946. Today, over 30 million young people in over 100,000 schools participate in the program, which costs over $13 billion every year. In 2016, three-quarters of the five billion school lunches served were offered free or at a reduced price. The School Breakfast Program, which offers free and discounted breakfasts to eligible children, operates at an additional cost of over $4 billion, and the Summer Food Service Program adds nearly $500 million more.

One might argue that these are essential programs that deserve both our money and our devotion. American children shouldn’t go hungry. Like many government programs, however, the National School Lunch Program and its off-shoots are deeply flawed.

What the Data Say

A revealing 2009 study by University of Chicago professor Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach found that children who ate school lunches were more likely to be obese than children who brought a lunch from home—despite entering kindergarten with the same obesity rates. A 2010 study by University of Michigan researchers found similar results, claiming that students who regularly consumed school lunches were 29 percent more likely to be obese than their classmates who brought lunches from home.

Rather than using these studies to question the government school lunch program and urge more parents to pack their child’s lunch, policy efforts turned instead toward making school lunches healthier. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA), launched in 2012, detailed new requirements for allegedly more nutritious ingredients and offerings in participating schools. Despite these efforts, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the youth obesity rate climbed from 16.9 percent of children and adolescents in 2011/2012 to 18.5 percent in 2015/2016. In 2017, the Trump administration announced it was loosening the HHFKA requirements.

The obesity correlation is only one problem with the federal school lunch program. Over the years, the program has been riddled with controversy. A 2010 USA Today investigation found that “the government has provided the nation's schools with millions of pounds of beef and chicken that wouldn't meet the quality or safety standards of many fast-food restaurants.” Then there was the question over whether ketchup was a vegetable, and the inevitable lobbying and special interest jockeying from various food producers and distributors.

This Is Your Statistics on Government

The US Census Bureau reports that the 2017 poverty level was 12.3 percent, and it has been declining steadily over the past several years; yet, about 75 percent of school lunch participants receive free or reduced-cost meals. While children do not need to be at the poverty level to receive a discounted meal, the startlingly high numbers of recipients may be due to a lack of income verification and accountability to determine real need. There are also instances of downright fraud.

Moreover, inclusion in the discounted school lunch program triggers a variety of other federal and state funding sources, including federal Title I money, so ensuring accurate eligibility is important. If participation in the school lunch program is inflated, it could mean that data on student academic performance is unreliable. National student assessments, like the Nation’s Report Card, use discounted school lunch eligibility to determine how well low-income children are faring in US schools.

The (Healthy) Way Forward

Favoring parental responsibility over government bureaucracy may be the most effective way to nourish children. Encouraging more parents to opt out of the school lunch program and prepare their own child’s lunch would reduce government control over their child’s food and lead to greater health and well-being. Being responsible for their child’s meals may also help more parents to make better food choices for themselves, thereby halting the climbing adult obesity rate, as well.

This shift in food control could ignite local efforts to feed hungry families by mobilizing restaurants, grocery stores, farms and community gardens, non-profits, charitable organizations, and private businesses to help gather and distribute food to those most in need. Some non-profits are already doing this by buying or leasing farmland to grow good food for local families who need it. New start-ups are also tackling hunger in innovative, market-driven ways.

Despite the shutdown, the National School Lunch Program is solvent through March, so children can still receive their schoolday meal. But perhaps this is a good opportunity for parents to pause and ask whether the government should be feeding their children at all.