While some in the government are trying to cut the fat out of the federally financed school lunch program, others are trying to cut funding for the program altogether, asserting that federal funds should not be used to pay for school lunches.
In mid-August, the future of the program was the subject of political campaigning at the Missouri State Fair. U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, who has been in the national news regarding his highly controversial comments on “legitimate” rape, said he was opposed to federal subsidies for school meals.
Students attending a majority of schools in Southwest Missouri, Northeast Oklahoma and Southeast Kansas receive either free or reduced-price lunches and breakfasts, and all school meals receive some subsidies. The modern school lunch program dates to the National School Lunch Act of 1946. The program covered 7 million children in its first year and was expanded to 22 million children by 1970. Congress has expanded benefits since then, for example, by adding an after-school snack program in 1998. Congress began school breakfast as a pilot program in 1966 and made it permanent in 1975.
According to a report in The Columbia Daily Tribune, Akin said he wasn’t opposed to feeding children, but that it wasn’t the federal government’s job to pay for it.
The state, he said, is responsible for education, and if providing breakfast and lunch was important then state and local governments could pick up the tab.
Akin was one of only 13 members of the House of Representatives to vote against a resolution expressing support for the National School Lunch Program. In March 2010, Akin voted against House Resolution 362, a resolution expressing support for the goals and ideals of the school lunch program.
Akin is challenging U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., for her seat in Washington this November. McCaskill said Akin’s views are too extreme.
“The notion that the federal government should stop using surplus commodities to help public schools feed kids lunch is a non-starter for me,” McCaskill said following Akin’s statement at the state fair.
According to the Tribune article, ending federal subsidies for school lunches in Missouri would add $260 million to state spending. Budget and education officials say that money is not available, and Missouri requires a balanced budget.
Missouri has already made cuts for school buses, Career Ladder programs, teacher professional development and Parents as Teachers.
Ron Lankford, deputy commissioner at the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Department, and a former longtime Webb City superintendent of schools, said the state could not absorb the cost of the school lunch program.
Akin’s position on federal funding for school lunches is echoed in a 2009 CATO Institute article. CATO is a Libertarian think tank headquartered in Washington, D.C., that challenged the school lunch program:
“Like other subsidy programs, the school meal programs are widely abused. A large share of free and reduced-price meals is inappropriately provided to families with incomes above the statutory income cutoffs.
Because schools put little effort into verifying recipient incomes, many higher-income parents receive subsidies.
Audits have found that about one-quarter of those receiving free and reduced-cost lunches are not eligible,” according to the CATO research.
“The bottom line is that local governments have many incentives to maximize the number of school meal recipients and little incentive to reduce waste and abuse. These problems are common in federal subsidy programs for state and local governments, in programs ranging from Medicaid to highway grants,” the article concluded.
Erik Dorey, a McCaskill spokesman, said the senator sees the program as a staple in Missouri.
“These school meal programs are critical to helping the kids who need it most in communities across the state — urban and rural, big and small. More than half of Missouri's students rely on school meal programs in some way,” said Dorey in a statement issued by McCaskill’s office.