First Lady Michelle Obama touted the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 as a way to make school meals more nutritious and accessible to reduce childhood obesity rates. But after more than five years, the program has few positive results: a recent study shows childhood obesity levels haven't declined (and in some demographics, have increased), food waste at schools is way up, and kids from families that don't need subsidized meals still get them, courtesy of federal taxpayers.
This month, Democratic leaders staged a rally on Capitol Hill to protest the Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act after the House Committee on Education and the Workforce passed it in May to address many problems with school-based meal programs. The bill targets the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) which allows entire school districts rather than individual families to qualify for taxpayer-subsidized meals at school. The idea behind CEP was to eliminate the stigma of receiving free lunch and reduce "the burden of collecting funds and maintaining accounts for the students who pay for school meals."
If Some People Need Others to Buy Their Food, Everyone Does
Here's how CEP really works: School districts in which 40 percent of the students are directly certified because they are homeless, in foster care, or receive public aid like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps) can receive federal funding to help pay for every child in the district to get a taxpayer-provided breakfast and lunch each day. The 40 percent threshold is then boosted by a "claiming factor" which assumes another 60 percent of the kids in the district qualify for the meals but are unaware of the benefit or too ashamed to apply.
So instead of giving "free" food to kids who need it, under CEP, 100 percent of the students get a taxpayer-funded breakfast and lunch, including many kids who don't qualify or need the meals. Remember, too, that their families are already eligible for food stamps, and probably receiving them given that one in seven Americans still is. This sloppy approach created a massive federal entitlement program that many in Congress now want to correct. "Community eligibility allows federal dollars to subsidize students who are not otherwise eligible for assistance. When that happens, we have fewer resources for those who truly need help," said committee chairman John Kline (R-MN).
So House Republicans propose raising the minimum threshold from 40 percent to 60 percent starting in 2017. This immediately triggered howls of protest from Democrats and special interest groups claiming the change would toss needy kids out of the program. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi accused Republicans of wanting "to give tax credits to their rich friends and then say, 'We have to balance the budget, so let's take food out of the mouths of babies to do it.' It's just plain wrong."
Lobbying groups also came out against the proposal. "This bill would result in countless low-income children no longer having access to the nutritious meals they need for their health and learning," said the Food Research and Action Center, an anti-hunger group in Washington DC that lists major food companies as benefactors. A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the agency that administers child nutrition services, questioned any cost savings from the threshold increase, telling reporters that "kicking children out of the program is the only way to achieve this magnitude of savings.
We're Only Trimming Middle-Class Welfare, People
Of course it never hurts to make Republicans look like they want kids to starve — especially during a presidential election year — but none of the desperate claims is true: "Every child who is eligible to receive assistance today will still be eligible for assistance under our child nutrition bill. The legislation simply enables us to more effectively use taxpayer dollars and provide more help to those who need it most," said Todd Rokita (R-IN), chairman of the subcommittee responsible for child nutrition programs. Families would just have to apply the old-fashioned way to document eligibility.
Republicans are right to rein in this inefficient and costly program while there's still time. The USDA concedes that CEP is the "main driver for the expected participation increase in school meals." But the scheme doesn't ensure increased participation comes from those it was meant for—the needy. CEP has led to a 9 percent increase in the school breakfast program and a 5 percent increase in the school lunch program in its first two years. The cost of these programs has jumped nearly 10 percent from 2015, with a projected budget of more than $23 billion in 2017.
Since the USDA acknowledges that only about 60 percent of eligible districts now participate in CEP, the program can continue to quickly grow in the coming years. You can be sure the administration in its final days will continue to push the program to increase participation among those who don't need it. Even after the Obamas leave the White House, their allies on Capitol Hill will keep demanding that the federal government play a larger role in feeding everyone and having taxpayers pay for it.
The Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act is just one example of how Congress will likely continue to tinker at the margins of the president's most intrusive and expensive food policies. After eight years of mandatory calorie counting and food-shaming, there is little proof Americans are fitter or healthier. We do have meddlesome programs trying to force-feed kids food they don't want—and in many cases don't need—while taxpayers pick up the tab. Republicans should not cave to the special interests and self-proclaimed do-gooders who are using school meals as a way to expand government.
Julie Kelly is a food policy writer in Orland Park, Illinois. Jeff Stier is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research