There’s No Free Lunch

Third grader Eliana Vigil checks out in the lunch line at the Gonzales Community School in Santa Fe.
Third grader Eliana Vigil checks out in the lunch line at the Gonzales Community School in Santa Fe.

Before the pandemic, more than half of American public-school students were eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont has proposed expanding the program to provide free breakfast, lunch, and dinner to every American public-school student. President Joe Biden is pushing a more modest reform: lowering the threshold for “community eligibility” for free or reduced-price lunch to cover another projected 9.7 million students—though this number may prove an underestimate.

There is a strong case for having the government provide food to children whose parents can’t afford to feed them adequately, but that’s not the question at hand. The question is whether the government should feed children whose parents can afford it. Conservatives have traditionally argued “no” from the perspective of fiscal responsibility. Progressives counter that universal school lunch would reduce paperwork burdens, yielding administrative efficiency gains. Another claim is that universal free lunch will fight the stigma and taunting kids who get free lunch reportedly experience. If everyone were eligible for the program, the argument goes, the lower-income kids wouldn’t get “lunch-shamed.”

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that universal free lunch would indeed mitigate bullying and that kids wouldn’t just find other pretexts to pick on each other.

Bullying, though, is hardly the only moral question that’s involved. An international perspective may help clarify some of the issues. Schools in Switzerland, by and large, do not provide lunch. Rather, students break for two hours midday and generally walk back home to be fed by their parents. The sight of young children walking through the streets by themselves is unremarkable in high-trust Swiss society. In low-trust American society, by contrast, it can provoke calls to the police.

Swiss parents like having their children come home for lunch, because the thought of turning them over to a government institution all day is abhorrent to them. Many Americans, in contrast, find it hard to imagine a non-pandemic world in which a parent would be expected to be at home during the workday to serve lunch. Which attitude is more conducive to a flourishing society? The economists who compiled the 2021 World Happiness Report ranked Switzerland third and the United States 18th on citizen happiness.

The Swiss have it righter, I suspect. My judgment is based less on the word of economists than that of my mother. She frequently told me that she took great joy in preparing my breakfast and lunch every day. That struck me as a natural and beautiful thing. Parents have a primal drive to provide food for their children. But parents are also sensitive and responsive to the social pressures their children face. If kids apply stigma to behaviors that go against norms, then universal free lunch could generate a stigma against kids bringing brown-bag lunches, discouraging parental food preparation.

Would that really be good for parents or for children? I’m reminded again of my mother. In cultures and religious traditions throughout the world, it is an age-old custom to give thanks to God before or after meals, recognizing that eating is partly a sacramental act. When my mother was a teacher in the Cleveland, Ohio, public schools, she was unnerved by the entitled attitude her elementary students took to the free school breakfasts consumed in her classroom (not to mention by the massive food waste). So she asked her students, before they ate, to say in unison: “Thank you, State of Ohio.”

She thought this was better than no expression of gratitude. She was probably right, but I found it unsettling. As a high school student, I couldn’t articulate why, but today I can. The children had to contemplate the state as provider, rather than reflecting on how the love and labor of parents brought food to their plate. That experience shapes a child’s moral worldview, with human consequences that evade econometric analysis. Since the government, not the family, is already providing the education, the food may seem like a minor detail. But as the religions recognize, it carries significant meaning.

Progressives eager to expand school lunches, breakfasts, and dinners may be disappointed to discover that even after all the heavily touted efforts to make school lunches more local and nutritious, what gets served in school cafeterias remains heavily influenced by Big Agriculture and its lobbyists. Expect more mystery meat and french fries, not free-range arugula or heirloom citrus. The same progressives who blame meat consumption for global warming now want to serve more factory-farmed hamburgers, bacon, and sausage in school cafeterias. Even the vaunted liberal commitment to “diversity, equity, and inclusion” is forgotten when it comes to children who may want to eat kosher or halal, prefer to avoid meat entirely, or just have allergies or food sensitivities. A salad bar or cereal may be available, but school cafeteria menus largely serve majority tastes.

And to what end? A literature review published in 2020 in the American Journal of Public Health examined the effects of the Community Eligibility Provision that Biden seeks to expand. The review, by Johns Hopkins scholar Amelie Hecht and co-authors, noted that, of five studies on universal breakfast, “3 found no change in test scores and 2 found some improvements.” Among studies focusing specifically on Community Eligibility for lunch, “2 detected improvement in test scores for some subjects and age groups and the third detected no change.” The authors note that the positive effects were “relatively small” and “similar in magnitude to those seen when families receive other forms of income support, such as the earned income tax credit.” Why not, then, just allocate the additional money directly to parents, the way that the government already does with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and did during the pandemic when schools were closed with the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer Program?

Perhaps the strongest argument for spending additional money on the federal school-lunch system is that school lunches are, reportedly, much healthier than grocery-store bought food. A 2021 study in JAMA Network Open by Junxiu Liu and co-authors found that, after the Obama administration’s school-lunch overhaul, according to the American Heart Association’s diet index, “diet quality for foods from schools improved significantly. . . . By 2017–2018, food consumed at schools had the highest quality, followed by food from grocery stores, other sources, worksites, and restaurants. . . . Findings were similar for [the USDA’s] Healthy Eating Index.” That study relied on survey respondents’ self-reports of what they ate, rather than on an external observation. School lunches are nutritionally different from other foods, but whether they are better or worse depends on whether the USDA and the American Heart Association are right or wrong in their dietary assumptions. The USDA’s food pyramid is subject to all kinds of political pressure, and expert advice on what to eat is subject to change. It wasn’t that long ago that the experts were telling us to eat margarine instead of butter, then reversing course to warn of the dangers of trans fats. Or those same experts were telling us to eat pasta instead of fats, then discovering that too many carbohydrates were bad for us. When the menu planning is nationally centralized, or organized to meet federal standards rather than a family’s, erroneous nutrition choices are magnified and imposed on tens of millions of children.

The old saying goes: “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” It’s true, but not only from a budgetary perspective. Making school lunch universally available would also come at a high moral, social, and potentially health-related price.

A fuller version of this essay is available as an AEI report, ”The Case Against Universal Free Lunch.”

This is part of the forum, “Expand Access to Free School Food?” For an alternate take, see “Let More Schools Offer Free Lunch for All,” by Amy Ellen Schwartz and Michah Weitzman Rothbart.

This article appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of Education Next. Suggested citation format:

Schwartz, A.E., Rothbart, M.W., and Eden, M. (2022). Expand Access to Free School Food? Debating plans to increase federal support for child nutrition. Education Next, 22(2), 66-72.

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