- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The House Education and Labor Committee today will consider legislation extending Uncle Sam’s reach into what our children eat. Although the $19.2 billion federal child nutrition program already hands out free or subsidized breakfast, lunch and snacks to 32 million kids, the bill under review would open up the freebies to millions more. The Obama administration has pledged another $10 billion in spending over 10 years.

The problem for congressional Democrats is that they have been peddling contradictory scare stories. On the one hand, we are to imagine that the only thing between 32 million youths and starvation is a government-funded meal. On the other, we are to suppose these same kids are so fat that the “obesity crisis” requires an immediate hike in the taxes levied on soda pop and bureaucratically disfavored food items. It’s hardly likely that many kids on this gravy train are starving.

President Harry S. Truman first put the feds in the cafeteria in 1946 with a comparatively modest mission. Over the years, it has expanded from covering lunches to adding free breakfasts and even after-school snacks. According to bureaucrats, the category “children” now includes those up to age 18. Typical families with a household income of less than $40,793 qualify for the freebies, while those making more can still qualify for a generous subsidy. The proposal before the committee seeks to water down and even eliminate these eligibility requirements by creating “universal meal access” so all students at particular schools would automatically qualify. It also would expand the benefit by creating year-round free meals “on weekends, holidays and during school breaks and vacations.”

All these changes move further and further away from the original stated purpose of helping needy schoolchildren. The school-meal initiative has become a typical government welfare program, riddled with fraud and waste. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) inspector general found that 69 percent of those applying for free meals in New York City in 2002 underreported their income to meet the requirements. The bogus eligibility claims added up to $700 million in 2006. Schools and food-service providers are also in on the scam, overbilling the federal government to the tune of $400 million. As an example of this fraud, an inspector general investigation found there were 241,852 more meals “served” in Philadelphia schools than there were students attending class.

Although such problems are widespread and well-documented, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has been underwhelmed by the federal response. “USDA’s oversight efforts have not directly focused on identifying or addressing meal counting and claiming errors,” a GAO report explained in September.

As long as someone else’s money is being spent, bureaucrats have no interest in ensuring that funds are used properly. Congressional Democrats want to use the Improving Nutrition for America’s Children Act to claim their legislative action rescued millions of (obese) children from the brink of starvation. Instead of expanding the multi-billion-dollar boondoggle, Congress should think about getting the federal government out of the free-lunch business.