Chicago Public Schools are back in session this week, facing an uncertain future, with massive debt, junk-bond status, and disgruntled staff. But one thing is certain: All of the district's 400,000 students will receive a free breakfast and lunch every day for the second year in a row, regardless of financial need. "I can't tell you the last time I saw a kid carrying a lunch box at school," commented one teacher from a large grade school on the city's west side. According to the school's principal, the cafeteria serves about 10,000 free meals per week, courtesy of federal taxpayers.
Congress is also back this week and will face the question of whether to reauthorize the law that introduced those free meals: the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA). Championed by First Lady Michelle Obama, the HHFKA set new nutrition standards for school meals while expanding access to taxpayer-funded breakfast and lunch to millions of students. "This bill is about giving our kids the healthy future they deserve," said President Obama when the law passed in 2010.
While the law was initially hailed as a noble effort to address the strange American paradox of childhood hunger and obesity, the HHFKA may have created more problems than it solved. Lawmakers are bracing for a food fight on Capitol Hill this month (the law expires on September 30), amid strong criticisms about unappetizing meals, wasted food, and financial strain on school districts. School nutritionists are urging that strict sodium and whole-grain rules be rolled back, as well as the requirement that kids must take either a fruit or a vegetable with their lunch. These rules have led to a huge uptick in food waste, as kids simply throw the items they don't like in the trash.
To be sure, complaints about school lunches are nothing new. Jokes about mystery meat served up in the school cafeteria have been around for generations. And there is certainly nothing earth-shattering about children throwing perfectly edible fruits and vegetables in the garbage can.
What is new — and has far-reaching consequences — is the rapid expansion of another costly federal welfare program. And unlike other welfare programs, this one doesn't give assistance just to poor kids who need it; many students who could well afford to buy their own lunch (or bring one from home) now get two taxpayer-funded meals a day. And the cost of the program — estimated at about $16 billion for 2016 — will continue to rise each year as more districts sign up for the food freebies. (Participation in the program is not mandatory but the USDA and state education departments are pushing hard for districts to sign up.)
If the program is reauthorized, it will inculcate an entire generation with the belief that government, not their parents or themselves, is primarily responsible for what they eat every day. Mom making breakfast and handing off a homemade lunch on the way out the door is an experience millions of children will miss, not necessarily because of adverse family circumstances, but because the government has made it much easier and cheaper to forgo that duty. "It's one less thing for them [the parents] to do in the morning," commented the Chicago teacher.
Easing the daily burden of packing a lunch was not the original intent of the National School Lunch Program. It began after World War II to make sure poor children were fed, a national purpose still needed today and not in dispute. Even the goal of offering healthier school lunches as the nation confronts a childhood-obesity crisis (one in three American kids is overweight or obese) is commendable.
But the HHFKA's overreach usurps parental responsibility for questionable results. There are no outcome-based goals, no measurement for long-term success. It's an emotional reaction to both a health crisis and a crisis in confidence concerning American parents, somewhat warranted but possibly having a great deal to do with government's gradually assuming the role of parents.
For example, on the website of the USDA (the agency that oversees all child-nutrition programs), parents can access a "toolkit" with information about school lunches. It dispenses all kinds of suggestions, from joining your child in the school cafeteria to asking what he ate for lunch. One piece of advice not offered? Pack your child a lunch at home. Not one word.
The issue of school lunches is important to the man in charge of the agency, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. During congressional hearings on HHFKA in June, Representative Dave Brat (R., Va.) expressed his concerns about "incentivizing the state to care for kids. The more and more the federal role increases, the [more and more] the role of the parents decreases." In response, Secretary Vilsack explained how he started life in an orphanage, and then was adopted into a family with a mother who suffered from alcoholism. "During the times she was drinking, she was not there. A lot of families deal with those issues, and somebody's gotta be there. You would hope the school district is taking care of them, protecting them, feeding them well, and teaching them well."
On September 1, addressing the Center for American Progress, Vilsack emphasized a second reason for promoting the program. "This is personal to me. and I think everyone who works with me understands that." He recounted being an overweight fourth-grader: "I know what can happen in a schoolyard when you're a little overweight and a little slow because of it. I don't want that for any child."
While these stories certainly evoke empathy for Secretary Vilsack, they are hardly enough reason to justify expensive federal policies. This is government-by-anecdote, sad stories that persuade lawmakers to act and obligate taxpayers to pay. And it won't stop here. The expansion of free-meal programs during the summer and pilot programs where kids eat dinner at school are in the offing. Meanwhile, at schools where only students who qualify under programs such as SNAP or TANF get free lunches, families that pay for lunches can expect a price hike in the future. Vilsack told the National Press Club on September 8 that schools with a high number of paying students can raise prices if they need more money.
So as Congress prepares to tweak salt limits and fruit servings, it should also take a long view of this program. Will it really achieve the admirable goals of reducing childhood obesity and ending childhood hunger? Or will it hasten the expansion of a costly entitlement for families who don't need it and give government even more power to dictate how our kids are fed? Taxpayers deserve an answer to both questions before Congress gives a green light to this program for another five years.
— Julie Kelly is a food writer and food-policy adviser at the Heartland Institute. Jeff Stier is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.