Policy 101: Why Block Grants are a Bad Idea When it Comes to Feeding Hungry Kids
Block granting the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs is a bad idea for all those for whom policy is trying to help: hungry kids, schools, food companies, state agencies, and taxpayers.
The basic tenet of good public policy is creating programs that are efficacious and efficient. Block granting school meals is contradictory to that tenet and is poor public policy.
How would the block grant work?
Under the current program, schools are guaranteed the option of providing poor children with a free breakfast and lunch at school. These meals must meet nutrition standards based on the most recent nutrition science. The federal government reimburses schools for each meal on a sliding scale based on the income of the child’s family. In tough economic times and/or when there are more children in the schools, the federal government’s payments increase; conversely when there are fewer total children and/or fewer poor children, the federal expenditures decrease.
Under a block grant proposal currently under consideration by the Committee on Education and the Workforce in the House of Representatives, three states would be allocated a fixed amount of money which is based on (but less than) the federal expenditures on school meals from federal fiscal year 2016. States would then be required to re-invent all the administrative requirements and processes, including standards for eligibility, nutrition, monitoring, contracting, and level of service. Schools would only be required to offer one meal a day, presumably — but not necessarily — lunch.
Why is block granting a bad idea for kids?
Block granting the school meals programs is a bad idea because it removes the guarantee that children in need can get two healthy meals at school. It would create massive inefficiencies and operational challenges for schools, food service management companies, and food companies. It would also lead to significant shortfalls in funding for these programs during times of economic hardship.
As a society, we have committed to taking care of our vulnerable children. Throughout the history of our nation, we have supported programs designed to help poor children meet their basic human needs. There is a long body of research proving that this investment works. These programs are not just part of our moral obligation, they build a stronger nation, with strong education and health outcomes. When we make sure children get the food they need, we set them on a path out of poverty and ensure they feel better, learn more and can grow up strong.
Block granting the school meals programs removes this guarantee; the proposed legislation only requires one meal a day to be provided at school, sets no criteria for who is to be served by the program, and no nutrition standards. Instead of closing the gap between school children who have enough to eat and those who do not, millions of kids in need could fall through the gap and be left without.
Why is block granting a bad idea for schools?
Because block granting these programs locks in funding based on a certain year’s expenditures and precludes program expenditures from contracting based on demand, it would abolish the ability for these programs to stretch and contract according to need. It would set them up to fail, leaving them without enough money when it’s needed and spending too much in other years. In case of a major economic shock or recession or in the case of a natural disaster, there would be no more money to meet the needs of a growing number of hungry children.
Block granting also adds a huge burden on schools. The pilot program would give states less money than they receive now from the federal government for administering these programs and they would have to spend increased dollars on administrative functions. Instead of using the existing standards for eligibility, nutrition, and program monitoring, states would be required to re-invent all these standards and create systems for their implementation.
Schools and food companies would have to reformulate their menus and food products to meet new, different standards than those that are currently available across the nation. Food companies selling food to schools and food service management companies can develop products and menus that can be used in any school in the country. With a block grant, the standards would be different in each state.
The Bottom Line
Flexibility should not come at the cost of irresponsibility. We have an obligation to feed our hungry children and to use taxpayer dollars wisely. There are better ways to increase flexibility and decrease paperwork to help the school meal programs be as effective and efficient as possible.