No individual who even remotely has a moral compass likes to see starving people. This is all the more so when seeing children who are dealing with malnutrition. However, ensuring that low-income children have adequate nutrition is the sort of argument that makes the case for a National School Lunch Program (NSLP) an easy sell. Although the NSLP started off as a way to deal with "surplus" food during the Great Depression and evolved into a WWII-era, national security concern to make sure people were fit for military service, it has become a program that has provided school meals to millions of children across the country. It was amazing to learn about many other facts about child nutrition programs from the Congressional Budget Office's (CBO) latest report on the subject. The argument of "Think of the children" has been used in everything from trying to ban video games to banning same-sex adoption to funding universal preschool. Arguing that we should provide children with better nutrition via the National School Lunch Program is a politically viable to maintain, but it doesn't answer the the underlying question of whether the federal government's role as the nation's lunch lady does children any favors.
These federal programs provide lunch for about 30 million children through the NSLP, and breakfast for 14 million children through the School Breakfast Program (SBP). Children from households up to 130 percent of the federal poverty line receive meals for free. Children from households for 130 to 185 percent of the poverty line are heavily subsidized, and any child beyond that federal poverty line receive a more modest subsidy (CBO, p. 1). While the Census Bureau has found that about 1.5 million children have potentially been pulled out of poverty, it also admits that its figures are most probably an overestimation given that it assumes optimal value of a school lunch (Census, p. 19).
The federal government spends quite a bit of money on food subsidies for children in school. According to the CBO report, $12.7 billion was spent on the NSLP in 2014, $3.7 billion on the SBP, and another $3.6 billion to both provide nutritional assistance outside of schools, as well as for school programs during the summer. (CBO, p. 1). These programs total to $20 billion per annum, which is about 0.11 percent of the country's GDP and 0.56 percent of the federal government's budget. These figures are nowhere as big as Social Security, Medicare, or military spending, but these smaller figures, when added together, make an impact on maintaining the country's debt-to-GDP ratio. Also, let's keep in mind that the spending on these programs has doubled since the 1990s (CBO, p. 2) while K-12 enrollment has only increased about 17 percent.
The price tag for the taxpayer, the unsafe amount of the chemical known as bisphenol A (BPA) found in school meals, or the fact that $12.5 million was spent on ineligible candidates should not be the only things we should consider when looking at the effectiveness of these food subsidy programs. 1,400 school districts have opted out of the USDA School Lunch Program since the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which was the USDA's attempt at greater regulations to make school lunches. The number of lunches served since 2010 has also been on the decline, and that does not even consider an increased enrollment size.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) published an indicting report about the NSLP back in 2014. According to the GAO report, there was a decline in program participation of 1.6 million students, an increase in wasted food, issues with compliance of high nutritional standards in the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, and price increases as a result of the already-existing subsidies. These standards have resulted in increased food costs [for students who are not beneficiaries], insufficient food storage, and newer kitchen equipment. Look at the fun regulations and standards set out by the United States Department of Agriculture on school lunches, and it should be no mystery why this has been an issue. Some of the crazier regulations include having to eat foods from at least three out of the five major food groups (one being produce), being prohibited from taking food out from the cafeteria to eat later, or making it nigh impossible to hide vegetables in more palatable foods. The School Nutrition Association, which is an organization of 55,000 school nutrition professionals, thinks that the regulations are too cumbersome, which is why the SNA is calling for more flexibility within the regulations.
The GAO is not the only one with intriguing results. According to a National School Boards Association survey conducted last year, 81.8 percent of schools saw significant increases in food costs, 83.7 percent of schools saw an increase in food waste, and 71.6 percent of schools noticed a decrease of students participating in the school lunch programs.
I was able to find a few more related studies, and showed that an estimated $1.2 billion dollars a year is wasted (Cohen et al., 2014). While preliminary research suggest that there has been a slight uptick in fruit and vegetable consumption, researchers from Harvard School of Public Health also found that the federal programs were not causing a decrease in food waste, and that 60 to 75 percent of vegetables and 45 percent of fruits are still being discarded. Johns Hopkins University also found that although the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act provides healthier options, only about a quarter of the children are actually eating the healthier food. Another study, which actually compares produce consumption before and after the Healthy hunger Free Kids Act, shows that while there was a 29 percent increase of students taking fruits and vegetables, there was a 13 percent decrease in consumption because the children did not want to eat the healthier foods (Amin et al., 2015).
What should we do to help bring healthier food options for our children? The CBO makes a few suggestions in their report. Three of those policy alternatives are to increase the income limit for free school meals and to increase the reimbursement rate by 10¢, neither of which deal with the underlying issues. Removing the subsidies for higher-income households would eliminate at least some of the distortionary effects of the subsidy, which could be good. The CBO mentions the possibility of replacing the program with a smaller block grant because it would make spending more predictable and provide states with more freedom to spend the money. However, block grants would a) reduce programming for some, and b) make it more difficult to automatically adjust to economic hardship (CBO, p. 1).
Ideally, we would be in a world in which the government does not act as a micromanaging interferer, and parents capably monitor what their children eat for lunch. Parents play a much larger role in a child's life than a school cafeteria does, so it should be no surprise that parenting styles play a vital role in a child's food consumption patterns. This is why we should not only encourage students to opt out of this program, but also for families to work with religious organizations, businesses, and social organizations, e.g., Revolution Foods, to help create healthier meals for our children. It would be great to see parents parent or at least collaborate with local organizations to provide healthier meals, but it might be too much to ask in our rat-racer world in which parents feel pressed for time.
At a minimum, it would be nice to not only limit the federal government's scope, but to also leave the standardization to more local authorities. The federal government shouldn't be treating children as if they were all obese individuals who can only handle very few calories lest they die of cardiovascular disease in five years. Each child's nutritional scenario is different, and school food authorities (or even better, parents) should be able to have more flexibility instead of being constrained by a one-size-fits all model that clearly isn't working. Parents and school food authorities would have a better idea of a given child's nutrition than some bureaucrat in Washington D.C. By generating program flexibility and simplification, we can start to focus on providing healthy nutrition towards children with less interfering, stifling government regulations.