Author’s note: a lot has happened since this post was published. The Trump Administration is backing off from mandatory school lunch regulations Michelle Obama insisted would give us healthy, hunger-free kids. There is one thing that hasn’t changed, though. Too much money for school breakfasts and lunches still slips through the Federal Government’s fingers. If Mrs. Obama needs a challenge, she should try fixing that.
Our government finally gained the deciding voice in how we will receive our health care. It also has a say in what America’s kids will eat. When Congress passed the First Lady’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 replete with an exhaustive list of spending on grants and subgrants, decisions on funding parts of the bill were left to chance. The plan was to borrow money from SNAP, the food stamp program.
Congress is about to face its fiscal cliff. Paying for healthy, hunger-free kids is expensive. Like all the other trappings of a welfare state, federal programs to feed the hungry waste your tax dollars.
Do healthy, hunger-free kids enjoy meat alternate?
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act has been revamped for the current school year. Washington has ensured that the tofu “meat alternate” kids will shove to the side of their school lunch trays will meet Michelle Obama’s standards.1 We also upped reimbursements to school districts and passed new guidelines to coordinate Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act provisions with SNAP, an entitlement that loses far too much to fraud and improper payments.
Do dead people eat enough to need SNAP benefits?
Not only do dead people vote in elections, they also receive food stamps:
We found that of the more than 13.9 million average monthly recipients in the 10 States we reviewed, there were 27,044 recipients (.20 percent) who were potentially deceased, using a deceased individual’s Social Security Number (SSN), had erroneous SSNs, were receiving duplicate benefits in the same State, were receiving benefits simultaneously from at least one other State, or were listed as being disqualified from receiving SNAP benefits.2
You can only be deceased in one state at a time, but if you are alive SNAP might provide you with benefits in more than one state because there is no system to track program beneficiaries nationwide.3
Welfare programs mean fraud. Do they make us better?
Welfare makes America great.
Politicians from Illinois are old hands at spending tax dollars for social causes. Distancing herself from her role on the Simpson-Bowles Commission, Illinois Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky claims that welfare is what makes America great:
It’s time for a robust defense of the social insurance programs that have helped build the middle class and have made America great, as well as a tax structure that asks the wealthiest Americans to pay their fair share.4
When it comes to time-honored excuses to commit tax dollars, children are hard to beat. Promoting the National Food Stamp Challenge, Schakowsky noted that children make up over 50% of Americans receiving SNAP benefits.5 Her counterpart in the Senate, Dick Durbin, blamed Republicans for proposing cuts to food stamps. He also bemoaned the nearly one-half million children in Illinois who don’t have enough food6 without proffering so much as a nod to what Illinois’ ruined economy, the billions sunk into pension payments, and the excessive social spending he advocates might have to do with the lack of funding for nutrition programs.
How many childhood nutrition programs do we need?
Childhood nutrition programs including the National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program, Summer Food Service Program, and Child and Adult Care Food Program cost $18.68 billion in 2012. Funding is projected to rise to $28.25 billion by 2022.7 Democrats claim that social insurance is a temporary leg up for the middle class, a little extra help until prosperity shines over the horizon. Does temporary mean the next ten years, or are things never going to improve?
We could have more healthy, hunger-free kids if we stopped wasting tax dollars.
In 2011 the National School Lunch Program joined SNAP to generate $4.2 billion in improper payments. The School Lunch Program had a bad payment rate of 16.0%, $1.7 billion that is projected to rise in 2012, 2013, and 2014. The SNAP program generated $2.5 billion in bad payments projected to increase to $2.9 billion through 2014.8 We could have a lot more healthy, hunger-free kids running around if that $4.2 billion found its way to their plates.
Do Democrats have a vested interest in dragging out the recovery? If America does an abrupt about face and prosperity returns, politicians advocating excessive social insurance will have a lot less to spend on. When the time comes to find poster children to justify spending more of our tax dollars, few excuses make for better PR than hungry kids.
UPDATE May 13, 2017:
Healthy, hunger-free kids still cost too much
Using the government as a club to force agenda doesn’t work. We found that out with the Obama experiment in federally-controlled health care. It’s not working for people and we can’t afford the price. The same thing is happening with Mrs. Obama’s mandatory school lunches, as the USDA recently pointed out:
Schools have been facing increasing fiscal burdens as they attempt to adhere to existing, stringent nutrition requirements. According to USDA figures, school food requirements cost school districts and states an additional $1.22 billion in Fiscal Year 2015. At the same time costs are going up, most states are reporting that they’ve seen a decrease in student participation in school lunches, as nation-wide about one million students choose not to have a school lunch each day.9
The National School Breakfast Program had a 22.48% improper payment rate and the school lunch program a 15.17% rate at the end of last year. That’s a total of $2.7 billion according to the government’s Payment Accuracy website.*
What does that mean? Less money for schools when kids don’t buy their lunch. Less food for kids if they won’t eat it.
I ate peanut butter and jelly on white bread for years. I was a kid. It’s what I liked. No whole grains. I’m still breathing.
*UPDATE December 13, 2019: new numbers on food dollars are better, but what do they mean?
This post was published in November 2012. Barack Obama was in the White House. Current retrospective payment accuracy figures for 2012 show a 15.53% improper payment rate for the National School Lunch Program and an astounding 25.18% rate for the School Breakfast Program.
Payment accuracy is reported differently now. 2019 figures show marked improvement, including a 9.08% improper payment rate for school lunches (6.45% over payments) and 10.5% for the school breakfast program (6.75% over payments). Is this a reporting improvement or are we actually better at monitoring who gets our taxpayer dollars? The raw data is available for the curious to draw their conclusions.
UPDATE May 12, 2020: what are school meals really for and will healthy, hunger-free kids eat them?
There is a glaring flaw in the Obama-era school meal standards:
As parents, we try to prepare decent meals, limit how much junk food our kids eat, and ensure they have a reasonably balanced diet,” said First Lady Michelle Obama.10
A soaring national obesity rate for parents and their kids argues just the opposite. Just because the government says something is healthy doesn’t mean people will eat it no matter how old they are.
Healthy food is wasted school food
Food waste in the school lunch program is enormous. Nearly 40 years ago the General Accounting Office published a report that showed less food was wasted when fast-food format lunches were served. The report also showed:
Higher conventional lunch plate waste generally resulted from higher percentages of waste for vegetables/fruits and bread items.11
The agency warned that improving nutrition could impact cost, whether students participated, and how much food they wasted.12
Many years later it doesn’t appear that kids’ eating habits have changed just because the government wants them to. An April 2019 USDA report shows that the biggest loser for school meals is vegetables with 31% of kids’ veggies wasted. Fruit didn’t fare much better with 29% wasted. Whole grains? 23% waste. The younger the kids, the worse the food waste.13
Democrats link healthy, hunger-free kids and climate change
Food waste in schools leads to proposals like January 2020’s School Food Recovery Act. H.R. 5607 proposes that we spend money on grants and create more USDA bureaucracy to reward schools trying to reduce food waste to “ensure school meals feed children.”14 The bill is also designed to appease the Green New Deal crowd:
By reducing food waste, individuals can help mitigate the climate crisis,” said Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici. “Food waste can emit methane, a harmful greenhouse gas, and also squanders the water and other resources that produced it and helped get it to consumers. This common sense bill will provide funding and resources for schools to tackle this important problem. It will help address the climate crisis and empower students to responsibly reduce food waste.”15
If reducing waste means not eating their school lunches it won’t make kids healthy and hunger-free. Nevertheless, we keep trying to legislate away the losses with bills like the Local Control of School Lunch Act:
This bill would provide students and school lunch workers relief from rigid federal school lunch requirements that are causing large amounts of food waste and diminished use of the school lunch program.16
That seems a little more on point. Removing federal price restrictions from school meals so localities can tailor the program to their individual needs17 is another idea to take some of the government rigidity out of the equation.
Then something completely new came along that has a lot to do with school lunches and nothing to do with childhood nutrition.
COVID-19 won’t make kids eat what they don’t like
School closures pretty well killed the school lunch concept. That will save taxpayers some money on the program’s improper payments and potential for fraud, which is not something the USDA even looks at.18
The disconnect between providing meals and kids eating them persists even now despite school lunchrooms being empty for the foreseeable future:
School meals are often the only source of wholesome food for students, and this bill will make it easier for schools to continue serving the meals students rely on to stay healthy,” said Chairwoman Suzanne Bonamici (OR-01), Chair of the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Human Services.19
That was in support of the COVID-19 Child Nutrition Response Act to keep school meals coming during the pandemic for students “health and well-being.”20
No matter how we navigate the cost and logistics required to safely provide healthy school meals to millions of children without schools being open, one big question remains. If a child is sitting at home and has the choice between eating a school lunch with vegetables, grains, and all the other things they don’t like that keeps them healthy or eating the same food that makes their parents obese, which do you think they will choose?
Why do you think America’s childhood obesity rate is almost 20%?
PaymentAccuracy.gov link updated June 20, 2020.