Why School-Lunch Alarmists Are Wrong

HUNGRY children cannot learn. And resources consumed by bureaucrats in Washington, and by costly paperwork in schools, cannot be used to feed needy kids. Nonetheless, when a key House committee recently approved legislation improving the school-meals program, defenders of the status quo responded with a coordinated political campaign of fear and falsehood.

Even kindergartners know lying is wrong. Yet Clinton administration officials 10 times their age charge the GOP with taking food from the mouths of needy children. And members of Washington-based special-interest groups bluntly said we are eliminating school meals entirely.

Families and children can take comfort that none of these charges is true. As chairman of the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Youth, and Families, which helped write this pro-family, pro-child measure -- and as a father and an educator -- I believe citizens deserve the truth.

First, we are expanding, not cutting, school meals. For the next five years, the authorized spending for school meals grows from $6.38 billion this year to $7.85 billion in the year 2000. That's a 4.5 percent growth rate. While funding for school meals grows, the number of meals served to needy children should grow even more. I recognize that school lunch has been a highly successful program that has enjoyed bipartisan support over the years. But it can be improved. Today, bureaucrats at one of Washington's most bloated agencies, the US Department of Agriculture, micromanage school meals.

Unappealing food and paperwork

Transforming a school meals program run from Washington into a block grant administered by states reduces the paperwork burden on local schools. The USDA requires schools to submit documentation for every food item served. School personnel complete this paperwork, and USDA employees read and file it. If this was an effective way to ensure excellent child nutrition, no one would complain. But a recent USDA report says more than half of the children from middle- and upper-income families do not eat school lunch. They say the quality of the food does not appeal to them.

The scandal over former Secretary Mike Espy tells us the USDA is tied closer to commodity and food production interests than those of children. Perhaps some other entity should be called upon to provide appropriate nutritional standards. Our legislation directs the National Academy of Sciences to develop nutritional standards for the states to use.

Funds directed to neediest

We have also directed the lion's share of resources for child and family nutrition to those who need it most. Fully 80 percent of the School-based Nutrition Block Grant funds must be used to feed children of lower-income families -- generally, families of four with annual incomes under $27,000. Because what works for children in California may not be best for kids in Iowa or New York, governors can use the remainder of the grants to provide more free or reduced-price meals, or to meet other nutritional needs.

Should an economic emergency or natural disaster increase the need for subsidized school meals, governors will have the flexibility to respond rapidly, ensuring children are fed. Defenders of the status quo assume that only bureaucrats in Washington care enough to feed children. I disagree. The closer to citizens that control of a program is kept, the more accountable it will be held. Our reforms of the school-meals program move authority and accountability much closer to the children and families who most need it.

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