It’s a Problem When the Goal of School Meals Is No Longer Just to Serve Students in Need

The White House wants every K-12 student to be part of the welfare system. And in its zeal to achieve that goal, pesky things like Congress or the risk of expanding already poorly performing programs pose no obstacles.

President Joe Biden’s administration is continuing the work of President Barack Obama’s team and trying to put as many students as possible on federal school meal programs. The current administration is proposing a significant expansion of school meals, turning a program meant for children from low-income families into an entitlement—akin to welfare—for all students.

Created in 1946 to help poor school-aged children who did not have food to eat at school, the National School Lunch Program has since spawned breakfast and other meal services.

In 2010, federal lawmakers expanded school meals yet again through the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Through the Community Eligibility Provision of the act, the Obama administration allowed schools and districts—and as will be explained below, later included groups of schools—to provide free meals to all students, regardless of family income, if 40% of students enrolled in school were eligible for free meals. By doing so, lawmakers allowed middle- and upper-income students to access taxpayer-funded meals. Helping children in need became an afterthought, as they were already eligible for free meals under previous law.

Now, the Biden administration has proposed a new rule to expand the Community Eligibility Provision—a move that seems suspiciously like something that should take an act of Congress. The rule would change the eligibility provisions again so that if just 25% of students enrolled at a school or district or even a group of schools are eligible for free meals, then the entire school, district, or group of schools can receive free meals.

Whether the National School Lunch Program or School Breakfast Program are effectively serving students now appears to be immaterial. Federal auditors have tagged both as “high priority,” which means these programs have significant levels of wasteful spending. This has been true for years due to the number of improper payments and inaccuracy of the delivery of meal options. Billions have been wasted on these meal systems in just the last five years because services have been provided to ineligible students.

By trying to increase student eligibility for federal meals through an agency regulation instead of allowing Congress to deliberate on the issue, the Biden administration is again following the Obama administration’s example.

Under Obama, policymakers created the Community Eligibility Provision and then expanded it by saying schools and districts and groups of schools could participate if they met the 40% threshold. In this way, one school could have zero students eligible for the school lunch program and another could have 40% of its student enrollment eligible, but all the students in both schools could receive free meals under the provision.

There is also the issue of plate waste. A new study from Penn State University estimates that nearly half of all food served in K-12 cafeterias is thrown away by students. The World Wildlife Fund suggests that nearly $2 billion in food is wasted each year in America’s school lunchrooms.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is considering comments until May 8 on the proposed rule reducing the threshold to 25% for participation in the Community Eligibility Provision. Instead of turning school meals into a form of welfare for all students, federal lawmakers should return school meals to their original purpose and help children in need.

Heritage Foundation research has found that in some states, the share of students from middle- and upper-income families accessing free meals has doubled or tripled since lawmakers created the provision. Lawmakers should eliminate it entirely and focus their efforts on reducing the waste and misspending in federal meal programs. (The Daily Signal is the news and commentary website of The Heritage Foundation.)

Lawmakers have already expanded the reach of these federal offerings beyond the meals’ original purpose—which was to help children from low-income families. Now, the programs are serving meals to wealthier students and wasting valuable taxpayer resources meant for students in need.

Before holding any discussion of expanding the Community Eligibility Provision, lawmakers must correct the school lunch and school breakfast programs’ many errors and return school meals to the programs’ original intent: to provide food for children in K-12 schools who cannot afford meals during the school day.

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