As schools shut down across the nation over fears of the COVID-19 illness, it appears that administrators are less concerned about how to educate children and more worried about how to feed them. A basic parental task—making sure your child has breakfast and lunch during the day—like so many aspects of family life, has been relegated to government bureaucrats thanks in large part to Michelle Obama’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.
Signed into law by Barack Obama in 2010, the bill initiated a massive overhaul of the nation’s school lunch program. The first lady’s pet project imposed restrictions on salt, sugar, and saturated fat content in an effort to slim down America’s youth. Nonfat dairy like skim milk replaced whole milk; whole grains replaced white flour. Some schools reported rations on pickles for sandwiches while students were caught smuggling in salt packets to make unappetizing meals more edible. Nearly a decade later, there is no evidence the costly and burdensome effort had any impact on childhood obesity rates.
But one part of the bill has met, even exceeded, its intended outcome: The expansion of taxpayer-subsidized meals to millions of American children and teenagers.
The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), enacted nationwide in 2014, allows entire districts rather than individual families to apply for “free” or reduced-price meals based on low-income rates in the area. If at least 40 percent of the students in a district qualify, every student in the district is then entitled to a free breakfast, lunch, and snack.
“Schools that participate in community eligibility often see increased participation in school meals and a reduced paperwork burden, allowing school nutrition staff to focus more directly on offering healthy, appealing meals,” according to a report by the Food Research and Action Center, a Washington D.C.-based advocacy group. “Moreover, offering meals at no charge to all students eliminates the stigma from the perception that school meals are only for low-income children.”
Over the past five years, participation in CEP has doubled. Nearly 14 million children eat free breakfast and lunch at school each day. Millions more receive reduced-price meals. And these figures will continue to rise; only about half of the eligible school districts have adopted the program. Overall, according to the Department of Agriculture, the agency that administers all federal food programs, more than 5 billion lunches, 2.6 billion breakfasts, and other school-based meals such as snacks will be served in American schools this year at a cost of $31 billion. (This includes government reimbursements for paid meals, too.)
So, after abdicating responsibility for feeding children from parents and guardians to the state, including for families who don’t need the assistance, the Wuhan virus crisis is forcing schools to figure out how to keep the free meals flowing for at least the next few weeks and possibly the rest of the school year.
In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue last week, the lobbying group for school nutritionists urged him to devise a plan to make sure kids still get a free lunch. “Expanding opportunities for [districts] to serve students during anticipated school closures would help combat food insecurity, prevent massive amounts of food waste and spoilage in school cafeterias nationwide, and ease subsequent financial losses for school meal programs and school districts,” wrote the heads of the School Nutrition Association on March 5.
A few proposals include organizing a “grab and go” system so kids can pick up their meals; distributing meals at satellite locations in the district to make it easier for families to get the food; and easing regulations to “launch emergency feeding operations.” Perdue has promised to “do our very best to give you all the tools you need to get those kids fed.” A few states are giving away free grocery store gift cards to compensate for shuttered cafeterias.
One of the reasons why New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio initially refused to close the nation’s largest school district was over fears children would go hungry.
“I’m very reticent to shut down schools for a variety of reasons,” DeBlasio said on CNN over the weekend. “Not just because that’s where a lot of kids get their only good meals, where they get adult supervision, especially teenagers, who otherwise would be out on the streets.”
The mayor announced Sunday that schools would close until April 20. DeBlasio and New York governor Andrew Cuomo are now working on a plan that, among other things, would ensure New York City’s more than 1 million students are properly fed.
Now, there is no doubt that children living in poverty-stricken areas, low-income homes, and in the foster care system need and deserve our help. Economic and cultural conditions have created hardship circumstances for millions of children through no fault of their own. There should be no argument about making sure vulnerable, neglected children are fed.
The problem with the current law is that free school meals are expanded to families who don’t need the help. Yes, most moms will admit that preparing school lunches is one of their least favorite chores (although it’s funny how you miss it when those lunch-making days are over) but it is a central parental duty especially if you can afford it. But now, parents, children, and educators have been taught that the responsibility for providing food for their children resides at school, not at home—a bad precedent. And it impacts crisis situations like the one the country now confronts.
The Trump Administration has been rolling back some of the more draconian measures of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, including baseless limits on food ingredients and stringent rules that overburdened school lunch ladies. Reexamining the community eligibility program, which has created a middle-class entitlement program of sorts while teaching kids all the wrong lessons, should be on the list, too. Its deep, insidious reach is just one more flawed government approach now exposed by the current public health threat.