School Meals: Not Broken

March 02, 1995

Power to the states? It's a snappy war cry, but apply the principle to the federal school lunch and breakfast programs, as House Republicans are saying they want to do, and the concept loses steam.

Last week, a House committee voted to repeal these programs, replacing them with nutritional block grants to the states -- a proposal that may sound good initially but is likely to be far more inefficient than the current programs.

Republicans characterize the federal school meals programs as yet another bloated federal behemoth ripe for trimming. They say the block grant arrangement will give states more flexibility in spending nutrition dollars by freeing states from burdensome regulations and red tape. But there are problems with this attack on a venerable federal program that has worked reasonably well over the past half-century.

Under the current system, school officials know precisely how much they are entitled to, and when economic hardship hits a community and more children need free or subsidized meals, the adjustments are predictable and smooth. Under a block grant arrangement, it would take Congress months to meet increased needs -- if it chose to. Meanwhile, school districts would struggle to meet the needs, or some students would simply go hungry. Any ideas from Congresss on how to hold the attention of a chronically hungry 6-year-old?

Opposition to the block grant idea is not restricted to the usual advocacy groups. School meals involve vast quantities of foods -- and represent important markets for farmers and food companies. Doing away with national nutritional standards, as the current proposal stipulates, would mean suppliers could face as many as 50 different sets of guidelines for supplying school systems with commodities. Without federal oversight, states could yield to pressure from local producers so that Wisconsin youngsters might be inundated with butter and cheese while kids in Arkansas got chicken five days a week.

One of the worst aspects of the proposal Republicans voted out of committee is that it provides perverse incentives: The amount of money states could get in future years would be dependent on how many meals they served -- not how big those meals were, or whether federal subsidies were targeted at students who most needed them. In other words, if a state could boost its meal numbers by providing more subsidies to middle income children, it would be tempted to do so.

Plenty of federal programs need fixing. The school meals program isn't one of them.

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