School lunches, served with a side of scare tactics
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Why do so many legislators, including conservatives, just hand over child nutrition policy to those who want federal micromanagement of school meals and welfare for everyone, regardless of income?

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Both the House and Senate have child nutrition reauthorization bills that essentially rubber-stamp the flawed policies of the Healthy and Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010, which were championed by first lady Michelle ObamaMichelle LeVaughn Robinson ObamaMichelle Obama says she is managing 'low-grade depression' Michelle Obama supporters urge Biden to pick former first lady as running mate Michelle Obama wishes Barack a happy birthday: 'My favorite guy' MORE.

Legislators should carefully consider these issues and be aware of the many scare tactics used to discourage any legislator from having the audacity to respect parents and local communities and promote welfare policy that focuses on serving the truly needy.

The biggest scare tactics revolve around the community eligibility provision, the school meal standards, and the Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer for Children (Summer EBT) program.

The community eligibility provision, put into place in 2010, turns the school meal programs on their heads. Because of this provision, free meals are no longer reserved for students from low-income households. Instead, a school (or a school district or a group of schools within a district) can provide free meals to all students when at least 40 percent of its students are identified as low-income.

Quite simply, this is welfare for middle class and wealthy families.

In fact, a school doesn't even have to have a single low-income student to provide free meals to every student, because eligibility can be determined by grouping high- and low-income schools together.

Proponents of this policy claim that tightening eligibility requirements would take free meals away from low-income students. In reality, even if this provision is eliminated (as it should be), children who have always been eligible for free and reduced-priced meals would still remain eligible for free and reduced-priced meals.

There's also handwringing about how some high-poverty schools wouldn't be able to participate in the community eligibility provision if school eligibility requirements were tightened or eliminated.

That's nonsense, too. They would still be able to provide free and reduced-priced meals, just as they have in the past.

Then there's the prescriptive federal school meal standards. The primary scare tactic here is the claim that without these standards — which dictate the type, portion sizes and nutrient content of foods that are allowed to be served in schools — students wouldn't get healthy meals.

However, there's nothing special about being in Washington that makes someone more intelligent about nutritional needs.

Local communities know the specific needs of their students and should be able to decide the details of what to serve them. A decentralized approach also gives parents a greater say in what is served in the cafeteria, since it's much easier for parents to influence local leaders than unaccountable federal bureaucrats.

Further, these standards have been a disaster. Students have publicly complained about the food being served in the cafeterias, and schools have suffered due to the high costs of implementing the standards. Some schools have reportedly had to take money out of their classroom budgets to meet the cafeteria requirements. And the Government Accountability Office continues to find substantial problems with plate waste.

Finally, there's the Summer EBT program, which provides money on an EBT card that households can use to purchase food during the summer when children are out of school.

Without this new program, proponents claim, many children won't get fed during the summer. Yet this assertion ignores the fact that there are already roughly a dozen other federal food assistance programs costing $112 billion annually. (Not to mention, there's already a summer meal program for children.)

It's also hard to call this a program for children since anyone in the household can eat food purchased with Summer EBT money. This program is really just an expansion of the food stamps program, masquerading as a program for students.

Policymakers should go back to the drawing board to develop child nutrition policy that meets the needs of low-income families and local communities. The scare tactics are bound to continue, but the only thing that would be truly frightening would be continuing any of these egregious policies.

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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