- Written by Leonora Leigh
Philadelphia and Pittsburgh public schools have joined the ranks of other major cities including Atlanta, Boston, Chicago and Detroit to offer free lunches to all students regardless of their income level. The schools are all participating in the National School Lunch Program via the Community Eligibility Provision which aims to simplify the process for distributing free meals to low income students by eliminating the need to fill out paperwork including income verification questions. The program which is now available for the first time nationwide was piloted in ten states and the District of Columbia over the past four years in conjunction with the passing of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 which was championed by First Lady Michelle Obama. According to the Department of Agriculture, the Act was designed to provide nutritious food to the 32 million students who eat lunch and the 12 million students nationwide who eat breakfast at school each day. To be eligible for the free lunch program under the Community Eligibility Provision, 40 percent of a school’s or a school district’s population must come from families receiving federal assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, more than 28,000 schools nationwide are eligible to adopt the provision.
Supporters of the Community Eligibility Provision tout it as creating a level playing field for all students to receive a healthy lunch and view it as natural outgrowth of the free breakfast program that many public schools offer. The news release from the School District of Philadelphia cited as benefits “better access to school meals by easing the strain on household budgets, reducing the paperwork burden on families and eliminating the stigma associated with the free lunch program”. According to Philadelphia School Superintendent Dr. William R. Hite, “Our goal is to provide as many students as possible with access to healthy, nutritious meals. We want to keep students’ focus on learning, not hunger.” Boston’s Mayor Thomas M. Menino delivered a similar public message when Boston launched its free lunch program last year. “This takes the burden of proof off our low-income families and allows all children, regardless of income, to know healthy meals are waiting for them at school every day.”
According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, last year the Philadelphia School District served 143,000 meals to students. Since 1991, approximately 175 schools have participated in a universal lunch program where all students were able to receive free lunch without completing paperwork. Under the new program, an estimated additional 85 schools will participate. The District claims that expanding the free lunch program to all public school students will not increase costs because the elimination of the application process and the processing of lunch purchases will reduce costs and free up staff for other functions.
While free lunch for all students may sound like a great idea on the surface, the logic behind it is flawed. Let’s start with the costs. Last year, 80% of Philadelphia public school students qualified for free or reduced lunch. Under the universal free lunch program, Philadelphia will now be losing the revenue it previously received from full price lunches ($2.25) and subsidized lunches ($.40). And even if the individual schools are able to reduce some costs by eliminating the processing of application paperwork, the School District does not have a crystal ball as to the future costs of the lunch program. And there is a very good chance that food costs might escalate especially given the stringent standards of the “Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act”. According to the School Nutrition Association, “The USDA acknowledged in final regulations that under the new standards the estimated increases in food and labor costs are equivalent to about 10 cents for each reimbursable school lunch and about 27 cents for each reimbursable breakfast.” While no support is provided for breakfast, these estimates are significantly more than the 6 cents per lunch that the federal government has provided the schools to meet the new nutritional standards. In fact the School Nutrition Association’s 2013 “Back to School Trends” survey revealed that in 2012-2013, 47% of school meal programs reported revenue declines. In addition, 54.3% of school district nutrition directors anticipated that reimbursement rates would be insufficient to cover the costs of producing school lunches. For instance, Seattle Public Schools experienced an $117,839 increase in produce costs resulting in an end of year loss of $257,668 vs. the district’s surplus of $83,531 in 2011-2012. Furthermore, the Government Accountability Office supported the claims of the School Nutrition Association with its recent survey of state nutrition officials which “found that local school food authorities had a slew of real-world concerns about the lunch standards, ranging from "increased plate waste" - bureaucrat speak for uneaten food - to the costs of meeting the new federal dietary code.” And of course, the program has also come under fire for not providing enough food. Who can forget the recent video of high school students singing “We are Hungry”?
The idea that a universal free lunch eliminates the stigma of qualifying for a free lunch is ludicrous. First of all, most schools have a process and technology in place to differentiate between the students who qualify for free, reduced or full price lunches without publically identifying students. For instance, many schools provide students with lunch cash cards which can be flagged to show the students’ meal status when they are at the cash registrar. Furthermore, there is something intrinsically wrong about using federal funding to provide free lunches to students whose families have sufficient income to pay for their lunch. The free lunch for all concept is also another example of federal overreach. By providing a free lunch the federal government is using the power of the purse to dictate the menu. And while there is nothing wrong with the concept of “healthy eating”, it is not the government’s role to impose dietary choices on society at large. By doing so, the government is inappropriately assuming the role of head of household for both the schools forced to follow its guidelines and the families whose children attend these schools. The school lunch program needs to return to its original mission - the delivery of free or subsidized lunches to financially needy students so that they have sufficient nourishment to focus on their education.