A child holds a school lunch.

A child holds a packed lunch and breakfast as the Wyomissing Area School District in Reading, Pennsylvania handed out lunches and breakfasts on March 17, 2020. (Photo by Lauren A. Little/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)

Free Lunch Doesn't 'Spoil' Schoolchildren

A Wisconsin school district's decision exemplified the "mean" in means-testing.

The school board in Waukesha, Wisconsin, recently made a strange decision. They opted the school district out of a federal program "that would give free meals to all students regardless of family income," the Washington Postreports. The reason? According to one school-board member, children could "become spoiled." The school district's assistant superintendent for business services worried that there would be a "slow addiction" to the free meals. This is a fascinating way to talk about children and their families, who do possess a biological need for food. Whether that need amounts to a "slow addiction" is a matter of opinion. And opinion in this country has become badly skewed.

Low-income children and families in Waukesha may still be able to qualify for free and reduced-price school meals under pre-pandemic guidelines. There's a catch, though, as there is with any means-tested programs. There are families who don't qualify for the program but still struggle to make ends meet. And those families are now out of luck unless public opinion forces the board to reverse course. That's possible, according to the Post; the board is meeting next week to discuss the policy.

But let's examine how we got here at all.

There's no evidence that free school meals "spoil" anyone, according to an expert interviewed by the Post:

"The discussion underscores a decades-old debate in public economics," said Ioana Marinescu, an economist at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Social Policy and Practice. The importance people place on "work and pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps," she said, fuels concerns that are often exaggerated.

In fact, the benefits could be wide ranging:

According to Marinescu, the Seamless Summer Option does not require anything in return from students. Because participants do not have to prove that their families have lower incomes, she said, there is not an incentive to rely on these programs.

"If anything, it's the opposite effect," she said. "The one that's based on conditions because it's required to have low income might create the disincentives the board is talking about, but the universal one is less likely to create disincentives."

There's another clear incentive to a universal school meals program. School-board officials would be more certain that children in their district have regular access to nutritious food. Fewer kids would go hungry -- and that should be an obvious win, especially to officials who are responsible for public education. Learning is difficult for hungry children. But America has always been content to let certain children go without. Behold the concept of "school lunch debt." According to a 2019 piece in the Counter, "median lunch debt rose from $2,000 to $2,500 per district between 2016 and 2018," and the social consequences for children can be severe. Students might be blocked from important school activities. Sometimes they're served meals that are cold instead of hot and are less substantial and nutritious than what their better-off classmates consume. There's an element of shaming, too. Kids understand why their classmate is getting a cold sandwich instead of whatever everyone else is eating, and the difference can inform teasing.

Universal programs put kids on the same level, and they guarantee everyone the food they need to get through the day. That anyone, let alone a school-board member, could say out loud that free meals might "spoil" children is indicative of widespread social rot. Our obsession with means-testing runs deep, because in the end, that fixation isn't just about targeted poverty reduction or writing sound policy. It's meaner and pettier than that. The people who worry about a "slow addiction" to food believe that public aid corrupts, that the poor can drag everyone else down to their abominable level. Our collective priority should be making sure that children have enough food to eat.

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