Public schools

There's No Good Reason To Expand Government-Funded School Lunches

It's an expensive policy with little upside.


Earlier this week, Colorado voters opted to make the state's school-lunch program free for all public school students. Colorado's vote in support of universal school lunches comes as the USDA, which administers the National School Lunch Program, has been working overtime to paint the program as a great success that just keeps getting better.

During most of the Covid pandemic, the USDA made universal free lunches available to public school systems around the country. Even after that lapsed, many if not most kids in Colorado (and every other state) whose families can't afford to provide them with lunches or lunch money were already eligible to receive free- or reduced-price school lunches under the federal government's National School Lunch Program. 

Supporters of the Colorado measure claimed around 70,000 students in the state who had received free lunches under the universal program were not eligible to receive free- or reduced-price school lunches. But instead of, say, providing cash to the families of those 70,000 students, the ballot measure made lunch (and breakfast) free for all students, regardless of need. It also ensured salary increases for cafeteria workers. Oh, and it'll cost $100 million per year.

Even some top-flight mental gymnastics doesn't make any of this sound like a good idea.

"The success of the measure means that all kids in public schools, no matter their family's income, will be able to eat free school breakfasts and lunches, reflecting the critical role schools play in helping students facing food insecurity," the Colorado Sun reported in the wake of the vote.

I have difficulty understanding how giving free food to kids whose parents are millionaires helps students facing real food insecurity. And I'm not alone. Earlier this year, a longtime school lunchroom worker in Michigan called universal school meals "a 'waste' because, too often, students whose parents could afford to pay for their meals would throw it in the trash."

But even hungry kids toss their government-funded school lunches in the rubbish bin. Why? It starts with the food itself.

In Pepperell, Massachusetts, for example, reports last week indicated more than a dozen students at Nissitissit Middle School had been sickened recently by school lunches—in two incidents a week apart. Both outbreaks of foodborne illness reportedly involved "undercooked chicken nuggets."

Also last week, in Sumter, South Carolina, controversy erupted over an undercooked burger served to a student at Bates Middle School. A school spokesperson defended the burger, claiming it was fully cooked (because the school system only buys precooked burgers for kitchen staff to reheat) and only looked disgusting because it was "prepared too closely together" with other burgers.

Ergo, not only are taxpayers paying for kids to eat precooked-yet-somehow-still-undercooked chicken nuggets and hamburgers for lunch—this is what Colorado voted for—but it appears school lunchroom staff don't even know how to reheat chicken nuggets or hamburger patties properly.

Such examples aren't outliers. Last year, similar issues popped up in public schools across the country, including in New York (gross, undercooked food), Alabama (raw chicken served to students), and Indiana ("Raw food, raw chicken, bloody chicken").

But it's not just undercooking food that's the problem. Last month, for example, food prepared and served in a middle school in Corpus Christi, Texas, caused a dangerous allergic reaction in a student.

Add to these examples others around the country I've reported on over the years, from "chunky milk" and moldy food served to school students in Maryland to maggot-filled granola served in Tennessee to similar examples in Michigan, North Carolina, Illinois, Missouri, and many other states.

Indeed, the National School Lunch Program is a disaster. It wastes untold quantities of money and food. As I detail in my book, Biting the Hands that Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable, the program wastes most of its funds "not on food but, instead, on reimbursing schools for overhead costs. That means only about $1 of every $3 the USDA reimburses a school for serving a student a free lunch goes to buy food." The meals served in schools consist of billions of dollars of highly subsidized foods that might otherwise go to waste. But those foods still go to waste anyways because, according to a Los Angeles Times investigation I discuss in the book, more than $18 million in food is wasted in Los Angeles public schools alone each year. 

Maybe, instead of deciding to spend $100 million each year to feed 70,000 potentially hungry students, Colorado could have bought up all that excess food from Los Angeles.