By William Patrick | Florida Watchdog
TALLAHASSEE — Want a free lunch? Take a seat at your local school cafeteria.
A new federal program is giving Florida’s public schools a way out of verifying whether students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
The solution: expand subsidized meals to include all students whether they can afford to pay or not.
Known as the Community Eligibility Option, schools and even entire districts can now receive free breakfast and lunch if 40 percent or more of students’ families are identified as low-income.
Students whose families receive food stamps, cash assistance or are Head Start eligible automatically count towards a school’s qualifying percentage.
Extending federal benefits to those who may not need them is going too far, critics argue.
While it’s unpopular for public officials to oppose programs that purport to help needy children, some experts say there is more to CEO than meets the eye.
Joy Pullman, an education senior fellow at the free-market Heartland Institute, told Florida Watchdog, “The Congressional Budget Office estimated this program would cost taxpayers an extra $11 billion for just the first 11 states that participate.”
“Federal school lunch programs also encourage families to think they don’t need to be responsible for feeding their own children,” Pullmann said. “But, more practically, when the feds subsidize something, they get to define all the parameters.”
CEO was established under the Healthy, Hungry Free Kids Act of 2010. Florida became eligible this year, and the program will become a nationwide option in the 2014-15 school year.
According to advocacy groups like the Food Research Action Center and No Kid Hungry Center for Best Practices, program benefits include eliminating the collection and processing of subsidized meal applications, reducing social stigmas by offering all students the same meals at no charge, and opportunities to adopt other programs like Breakfast in the Classroom.
Scholars like Chris Edwards of the libertarian Cato Institute have long held that subsidized breakfast and lunch programs no longer serve their intended purpose of reducing hunger.
Florida Watchdog contacted the Cato Institute for comment but was referred to Edwards’s 2009 report, which states that subsidized school meals may ironically “contribute to the problems of excess weight and obesity in many young people.”
There’s also a question of fairness, Pullman said. “Federal administrators plan to raise lunch prices for middle-class and wealthy families to offset these costs,” she said.
The normal application process still exists in non-qualifying Florida schools. Even then, verifying whether students are eligible for the entitlement has its limits.
According to the National School Lunch Act, school districts are only required to confirm the reported income of 3 percent (or 3,000, whichever is less) of submitted applications.
The low threshold combined with lax verification efforts often leads to higher-income families receiving subsidies intended for the truly needy, Edwards said.
A recent Miami-Dade County Public Schools inspector general’s report cited a South Florida teacher who gamed the free lunch system by fraudulently understating her income by $58,000 on her application.
According to the report, she was not only able to acquire free meals for her children, but as a result, obtained free tutoring, free test waivers and free college applications totaling more than $2,000.
Advocates consider the reported increase in the number of students eating free breakfasts and lunches in participating states as evidence the program is working. Skeptics like Pullman aren’t buying it.
“The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act caused a record number of school districts (approximately 200) to drop federal lunch subsidies,” she said.
“The best way to empower communities and families is to address their problems locally.”
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