As Congress considers reauthorizing the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, much of the debate is properly focused on modifying inflexible restrictions on sodium and whole grains in school lunches.
But lawmakers should also take a closer look at a little-known section of the law that will greatly expand the free lunch program, especially to students whose families can afford to pay.
The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) allows school districts in low-income areas to provide federally funded breakfast and lunch not only to needy students, but to every student, regardless of the student's ability to pay. This is a major departure from standard practice over the past several decades when families in need applied for the program.
Proponents of the plan at the U.S. Department of Agriculture defend CEP, arguing it will reduce paperwork at school districts by eliminating the need to collect household applications. They claim it will save money by easing administrative costs. But what the program will really do is expand the free breakfast and lunch program, irreversibly creating a new entitlement program.
What the program will really do is expand the free breakfast and lunch program, irreversibly creating a new entitlement program.
Taxpayers will be on the hook for two meals each day for students whose families can afford to feed them. We are all for less paperwork, but at best, this is a wasteful idea.
If defenders of CEP can't come up with a better argument than "paperwork reduction," we are left to conclude that the program is really an attempt to get more kids, especially those not in need, to eat government-issued food rather than the meals parents choose for their kids. If those who back CEP succeed, it'll be a victory for people who think we'd all be better off if we shift parenting responsibilities to bureaucrats.
Here's how the program works: A district can get CEP certification if 40 percent of the students automatically qualify because their family receives food stamps, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or the student is homeless, in foster care or a migrant youth. The USDA then adds a multiplier to boost the number of presumably eligible students by another 60 percent. Once the district is certified, students who once paid full or reduced prices for lunch no longer need to pay. The district receives reimbursement from the federal government — for both free breakfast and lunch — at a daily rate of about $4.50 per student.
The upcoming 2015-16 school year is the second year of the program. State and federal agencies are urgently promoting CEP before the Aug. 31 deadline.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack anticipates CEP will be the "main driver" behind a 10-percent jump in the school lunch and breakfast program next year. With a combined annual budget of about $16 billion, this will mean a sharp increase in federal funding.
And for a program rife with problems — some audits peg wasteful spending into the billions each year — taxpayers have reason for concern. Ironically, most wasted funds are based on fraudulent household applications. By eliminating the application requirement, the "problem is solved." That's fraud prevention, Washington style!
At issue is not whether poor children should be fed at school, but whether taxpayers should buy breakfast and lunch for potentially millions of students who can afford to pay.
At issue is not whether poor children should be fed at school, but whether taxpayers should buy breakfast and lunch for potentially millions of students who can afford to pay. The USDA acknowledges that "some children from higher-income families will receive free lunches through CEP" but that "eligible schools will only choose to participate if it is financially viable for them."
What's at stake is a near-doubling of an already troubled program. The USDA says only half of eligible districts have applied so far. That means the program will at least double to about $32 billion annually over the next several years.
As the late-Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois is often misquoted saying, "A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon, you're talking real money."