There is such a thing as a free lunch—even at religious schools.
At the end of September, the “Biden-Harris administration” will be hosting the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health—the first in over 50 years. In conjunction with the conference, “the administration will also release a National Strategy with actions the federal government will take to drive solutions to these challenges.” The five “pillars” of the conference have been announced. They are:
- Improve food access and affordability
- Integrate nutrition and health
- Empower all consumers to make and have access to healthy choices
- Support physical activity for all
- Enhance nutrition and food security research
A task force organized by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Tufts University, World Central Kitchen, and Food Systems for the Future, which includes among its cochairs former Clinton administration agriculture secretary Dan Glickman and former Senate majority leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), has introduced a report with 30 policy recommendations that they want addressed by the upcoming conference.
Included in the first policy recommendation is an expansion of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP).
Ideally, “Congress should provide free nutritious meals (lunch, breakfast, summer, afterschool meals) for all children in the United States, removing the income test and ensuring all children receive free meals without stigma or burdensome paperwork.” But short of this, there are “policy options” that Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) could pursue “to increase access to nutritious foods through the school nutrition programs”
a. Expand the eligibility for school districts to participate in the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), allowing more students in low- and middle-income school districts to access free school breakfast and lunch.
b. Eliminate the reduced-price meals category and provide free meals to students who are eligible for reduced-price meals.
c. Establish a national policy for addressing unpaid meal debt that prohibits “lunch shaming” or alternative meals and also lays out a pathway to forgive lunch debt.
d. Incentivize schools to use innovative serving methods to increase SBP participation, such as grab and go or breakfast in the classroom.
Congress should also expand the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP) to “all elementary, middle, and high schools that participate in CEP.”
But what about private, religious schools? Should they be eligible to receive federal funding for school lunch programs just like public schools?
New guidance from the USDA says yes, but only after a lawsuit was filed in July against the USDA by 22 states “to stop the Biden Administration from enforcing an expansive and unlawful interpretation of federal antidiscrimination laws under the threat of withdrawing key food assistance program funding.”
Soon after taking office, President Biden issued an executive order (13988) to prevent and combat “discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation.” Federal agencies were instructed to take action to ensure that they fully implement the policy.
In May, the USDA announced that it “will interpret the prohibition on discrimination based on sex found in Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, and in the Food and Nutrition Act of 2008, as amended, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly the Food Stamp Program (7 USC § 2011 et seq.), to include discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.” Participants in federal nutrition programs were required to “update their non-discrimination policies and signage to include prohibitions against discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.”
Republicans and religious schools were aghast, hence the lawsuit by 22 “red” states. Predictably, Democrats characterized opposition to the new USDA guidelines as conservatives wanting to discriminate against homosexual or transgender kids in school lunch programs.
But in a memorandum issued on August 12, the USDA acknowledged that Title IX “includes some exceptions, including one permitting an institution to be exempt on religious grounds if there is a conflict between Title IX and a school’s governing religious tenets.” And furthermore, “USDA regulations do not require a religious educational institution to submit a written request for a Title IX exemption in order to claim that exemption.”
This brouhaha over federal funding for school lunch programs in private religious schools should serve as a reminder once again that he who pays the piper calls the tune. With government funding inevitably comes government oversight, regulation, and/or control. Private religious schools that accept government funds are uninformed, naïve, and/or foolish to think that there won’t be any strings attached to the receipt of federal funds.
So, what is the solution? Do libertarians want children to try to learn on an empty stomach all day at school? Do they want children to be deprived of a nutritious lunch? Do libertarians want children to go home from school too hungry to do their homework?
Of course not.
It is simply the case that the federal government has been granted no authority by the Constitution to fund a school breakfast or lunch program. As much as many Americans—liberals and conservatives—want it to be so, the federal government simply has no authority to do so. And not only that, the Constitution doesn’t grant the federal government the power to have anything to do with education whatsoever. This means no federal student loans, Pell Grants, Head Start, Higher Education Act, Elementary and Secondary Education Act, research grants to colleges and universities, and no Department of Education.
Who, then, should feed hungry children?
Every state has a provision in its constitution for the operation of K-12 public schools. If there is to be government-funded school breakfast or lunch programs, then these programs should be funded by the states. And it should be entirely up to the states as to whether they will fund these programs at private religious schools.
The ultimate responsibility to feed children belongs to their parents. If parents need help to feed their children, then they should look to family, friends, charities, religious organizations, relief organizations, businesses, and food banks—anything but the government.