Congress Broadens School Lunch Choices, Just in Time for Thanksgiving

Congress Broadens School Lunch Choices, Just in Time for Thanksgiving
November 24, 2011

Joy Pullmann

Joy Pullmann is a research fellow on education policy for The Heartland Institute and managing... (read full bio)

Public schools nationwide have started “to look at every single thing” that could ease widespread budget woes, says a National School Boards Association spokesman. In the spirit of Thanksgiving’s food revelry and abundance, Congress has just offered them some financial flexibility on school lunches.

A House and Senate compromise on a big agricultural bill November 14 pulled the funding for school lunch rules the U.S. Department of Agriculture had implemented earlier this year, which would have required schools to offer “dark green and orange vegetables,” limit starches such as potatoes and peas to one-quarter cup every week, ban 2 percent milk, and make half the grains available whole-grain.

Those unable to get past the incessant, incestuous kabuki between big government and big business, such as the New York Times, painted the move as a fight between virtuous bureaucrats attempting to give poor kids more broccoli and whole-grain kale rolls versus industry giants evilly hoping to stuff transfat-soaked junk food into virgin bellies.

But the real story comes down to individuals, families, and local schools, as it usually does, and the USDA’s long history of trying to milk them dry.

Of the $284 billion in Congressional Budget Office-projected costs for the last farm bill, in 2008, about 65 percent went to food welfare. The federal government spends approximately $11 billion a year on the national school lunch program, adding another $7 billion over five years for these more-expensive school lunches.

But that’s only half the story. The extra USDA reimbursement implemented earlier this year ran 6 cents per meal. That’s how much $7 billion gets you, at least over five years. Most school lunches are priced at approximately $2.50. Because of the UDSA’s price structure, the 6 cent supplement meant an increase in the amount paying families would spend on subsidizing nonpaying families. Schools across the country raised lunch prices this fall, to great parental hullabaloo.

Triple-Charging Taxpayers
This policy double- and even triple-charges parents and taxpayers. Taxpayers sponsor a national school lunch program, parents above the poverty line pay for their children’s school lunches, and taxpayers and parents pay for increased mandates from Washington. Meanwhile, the USDA offers taxpayer-paid bonuses to states that increase their free-lunch rolls, and in 2014 it will force every state to offer a federal program requiring all students at participating schools to eat taxpayer-funded breakfasts, lunches, and snacks at no cost to any student, regardless of their ability to bring or pay for food.

Of course kids should eat healthy food. Of course good neighbors happily offer charity to families struggling to feed their children. Americans demonstrate a strong charitable bent by giving more generously than citizens in every other industrialized nation. But there are ways to do this without expensive, extensive rules from out-of-towners who never see the faces of the people they promise to be helping with your tax dollars. For once, Congress has recognized this.

When you keep milking after a cow is dry, she starts to kick. It pinches—besides, she has been saving some for her babies and doesn’t want you to take it.

Attending to a child’s needs is as natural for parents as for animals. Encouraging us to do so on our own saves taxpayers billions and contributes to a healthier society by encouraging individual responsibility and close family ties. These, in turn, resoundingly increase student well-being and academic achievement.

So enjoy that Thanksgiving dinner, kids. You can be thankful the government isn’t forcing you to eat more broccoli.

USDA photo by Bob Nichols.

Joy Pullmann

Joy Pullmann is a research fellow on education policy for The Heartland Institute and managing... (read full bio)