Do the wealthy really need free school meals?
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Both the House and Senate are considering bills that would give free school meals to children from wealthy families.

The bills would reauthorize the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, continuing a policy known as the community eligibility provision. By offering generous federal subsidies, this provision, which started as a pilot test and is now being expanded, encourages schools to give students free meals regardless of whether or not they come from low-income homes.

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The provision stipulates that if at least 40 percent of students within a school, group of schools, or a school district are deemed eligible for free meals, then those schools must provide free meals to all students. Goodbye, needs-based assistance. Even children from wealthy families can get free meals if enough of their classmates qualify for help.

Moreover, the way the community eligibility provision is designed makes it possible for a school with absolutely no low-income students to receive free meals for all of its students. All it takes is for a school with a small low-income population to be grouped together with schools serving largely low-income populations. Then all of the schools get in on the free-meal action.

Welfare programs are means-tested for a reason. They are meant to serve only those who are truly in need of help.

In seeking to provide welfare regardless of family income, the reauthorization bills would entrench a terrible precedent. Besides wasting taxpayer dollars, the community eligibility provision imposes a wealth transfer, taking hard-earned money from lower-income taxpayers and using it to subsidize higher-income families who have no need for such welfare.

It's really just a backdoor tactic to move toward a universal school meals policy. Proponents claim it will help reduce the administrative burden on schools. Ironically, these are usually the same people want to impose unduly burdensome and costly school nutrition standards on schools.

If Congress wants to address burden, the solution isn't to just get rid of income requirements for school meals. Schools should be required to ensure that only those who are low-income students receive free meals.

The House's proposed child nutrition reauthorization bill is marginally better than the Senate version when it comes to the community eligibility requirement. It would require that schools identify at least 60 percent of their students as low-income, rather than the current 40 percent requirement. But rather than eliminating the community eligibility provision, the House bill would legitimize this universal school meal scheme.

Defenders of the provision vehemently oppose the House's effort to rein in the community eligibility provision, claiming that legislators want to take food from children. What they don't say is that, even if the community eligibility provision were eliminated, it would have no impact on the eligibility of low-income students to receive free and reduced-price meals.

Congress should take a step back and consider the best approach to child nutrition instead of using the flawed Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act as the starting point from which to develop policy. Any child nutrition reauthorization bill that has the community eligibility provision should be a nonstarter for any legislator.

Free meals should go only to those students who are eligible for free meals, and reduced-price meals should go only to students eligible for reduced-price meals. Other students should be eligible for neither. This obvious and commonsense point has been lost. Congress must find it again.

Bakst is the Heritage Foundation's research fellow in agricultural policy. Sheffield is a Heritage policy analyst specializing in welfare policy.


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