Backgrounder: The School Lunch Program

August 19, 2016

by Adrienne Carrier

Most of us have halcyon memories of the school-lunch line — the cafeteria ladies, the half-pint milk cartons, always making sure to bring money on pizza day. Nostalgia, though, may mask what the lunch line now represents, that is, an overreaching federal program measuring success by the number of dependent families. We now have a system that not only feeds school children but an entitlement mentality.

For somewhere along the way we decided — or it was decided for us — that even in an abundant society great numbers of parents could not be trusted to organize family priorities so that their children were adequately fed. Nor would neighbors or churches be of help.

Government would have to assume ultimate responsibility. Moreover, that government would have to be the federal government and not state or local government.

And because of bureaucratic complexity, even those who could afford lunches would be provided free ones directly or indirectly at the expense of the truly needy.

Washington has had more than 80 years now to refine its methods and to prove all is working out as intended. It cannot. And for both those paying the bill and those receiving the benefits it is only prudent to assess the results. For there are compelling arguments that, failing to end it completely, we can reassign the school-lunch program to the innovation and management of the individual states as is the constitutional design.

The United States school meal program helps fund breakfast and lunch for 31 million children at around 100,000 schools across the country. Taxpayers this year will send $22 billion to Washington to pay for the program.

Of those 31 million going through the lunch lines everyday, 21.5 million receive free or subsidized lunches. In most cases, this means that in addition to receiving free breakfast or lunch for its children, the recipient household is receiving benefits through what was formerly the Food Stamp Program, now the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Dr. Marvin Olasky, writing in WORLD Magazine, cites Department of Education officials in reporting that the proportion of U.S. fourth-graders enrolled in the free or subsidized school-lunch program has climbed from 49 percent to 52 percent.

“The 21.5 million children now enrolled in the program come from households (four person) with incomes up to $41,348,” he says. “The number of children in the program has grown, partly because of increased unemployment but to a large extent because Congress now requires school districts to match student enrollment lists against lists of food stamp (SNAP) recipients, and automatically enroll in the meals program those who receive that aid.”

In sum, Americans have come to demand more and more from a redistributionist program that is of a size and scope that would have been unthinkable even during the Depression when malnutrition was a more serious concern.

Recent efforts require school meals to meet expensively high and arguable nutrition and health standards. Why? The rise in childhood obesity is believed linked to a government food program meant to fight malnutrition.

That sounds right somehow.

Adrienne Carrier, a South Bend native and research assistant for the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is a junior at Hillsdale College studying politics and economics. This is excerpted from a larger article in the current issue of the quarterly Indiana Policy Review.


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