Harvesting Free Breakfast on the Government Plantation

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A recent op-ed by Rhode Island First Gentleman Andy Moffit seems like a more or less rote bit of policy promotion, but it brings with it a deeper topic that’s worthy of a lingering thought:

The data is clear: student hunger results in poor health and poor test scores.

That’s why I support No Student Hungry, an initiative by my wife, Gov. Gina Raimondo, to ensure that no student from pre-K to college goes hungry at school. Right now, thousands of Rhode Island kids are missing out on free meals they are eligible to receive under federal law at no additional cost to the state. Only half of all students eligible for the federal free breakfast program receive a breakfast at school every day, and only about a quarter of schools eligible to serve universal free meals are doing so.

That’s where No Student Hungry comes in. The proposal will increase student meals participation by requiring eligible schools to serve universal breakfast and lunch — and serve breakfast after the school bell rings. While just over half of eligible students typically receive breakfast, schools that offer universal free breakfast and breakfast after the bell see participation rates of 70 percent. And we’ll support districts with implementation to make the transition as easy as possible.

A constant problem with discussion of public policy on welfare or education is the metrics at which we look.  At the end of the day, the measure of a “successful”  program is how much taxpayer money it spends.  Moffit’s evidence isn’t of actual hunger, but of children who aren’t receiving taxpayer-funded free meals.

Of course, the meals aren’t really “free” even to the children receiving them.  One reason that universal pre-K has been showing net-negative results is that it removes children from environments that are healthier for them, albeit less convenient.  Taking a child who currently has breakfast time with his or her parents before school and changing the routine to a meal at school after the has rung could do the same.

In this case, another question arises as to why districts or others might not be providing the service.  If they’ve determined that they don’t need to do it or that it isn’t worth their while or good for their population, why should the state mandate it?

The focus on the service of providing food and then sending U.S. taxpayers a bill from both state and local governments also points to the dynamic of the government plantation.  Boiled down to its core message, Moffit isn’t talking about eliminating child hunger.  He’s talking about the government bureaucracy’s harvesting clients to justify taking money from other people.  At the end of that transaction, perhaps we can be sure that somebody gets fed.  The question is: whom?