“School Lunch Debt” Is a Phrase That Shouldn’t Exist in a Humane Society

Bernie Sanders and Ilhan Omar want schools to abolish “school lunch debt” and feed all children at school free of charge. In a decent society, that would be uncontroversial — yet every Republican and many Democrats haven’t signed on.

Children have a right to eat a good meal before they’re expected to pay attention to their classes. (John Moore / Getty Images)

Bernie Sanders and Ilhan Omar, along with seventeen colleagues in the Senate and seventy-four in the House, have just introduced legislation to “end child hunger in schools by offering free breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a snack to all students, preschool through high school, regardless of income, eliminating all school meal debt, and strengthening local economies by incentivizing local food procurement.”

The Universal Free School Meals Program Act of 2023 would, in other words, make sure that every student is treated the same at the school cafeteria and none of them accumulate “school lunch debt” — a combination of words that wouldn’t exist in a remotely decent society.

If you’re wondering who wouldn’t be in favor of that, a glance at the names missing from the cosponsor list gives you your answer:

The majority of Democrats in the House and Senate, plus all Republicans.

The Heritage Foundation Versus Hot Meals for Children

We already had universal free school meals as a temporary measure during the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time, the conservative Heritage Foundation warned that the program was “neither targeted nor likely to be temporary.” They quoted the libertarian economist Milton Friedman, who quipped, “Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program.”

There’s some truth to Friedman’s complaint. Once a social program has been shown to work well and make ordinary people’s lives better, there’s a “danger” that it will be difficult for politicians to reverse it. Sadly, in this case Friedman was wrong. The temporary school meals program ended last September.

Heritage’s commentary, written by the foundation’s Will Skillman Senior Research Fellow in Education Policy Jonathan Butcher and former senior research fellow Darren Bakst, argued that providing “welfare” to students who didn’t need it was “wasteful” and “fiscally irresponsible.” They didn’t even try to argue that the actual sums of money involved in providing hot meals to every child who wants them were exorbitant — the article includes no dollar figure. Instead, they seem to find it obvious that it’s “irresponsible” to feed children before vetting their parents’ finances to make sure that they can’t afford to pay.

And in addition to this terrible irresponsibility, they argue, universal free school meals are unfair! “[T]he universal free meals system will take money from low income families and then use it to subsidize high income families who have no need for such welfare.”

This argument could apply to the public school itself as easily as to school lunch. A bolder version of Butcher and Bakst could reason that giving low-income students reduced tuition or exempting them from tuition entirely is one thing, but to simply let the children of doctors and lawyers attend public high schools for free amounts to taxing low-income people to pay for the education of high-income people. How unfair!

If they actually cared about the fairness argument, their minds would be put at ease by a reminder that if universal public goods are funded through progressive taxation, the wealthy end up shelling out much more than the equivalent of what they receive.

And as a matter of practicality, means-tested programs are far more politically vulnerable than universal ones. Many people are less motivated to preserve programs that they don’t think they’ll benefit from — and they may actively resent them if they fall into the inevitable gray zone of “could use the help” but not quite poor enough to qualify a “low-income.”

Compare the predictable backlash to attempts to cut Social Security to the way Bill Clinton was able to nix the AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) program in the 90s with little pushback — even though shuttering the program had grisly consequences for many low-income mothers. Or the way Republicans were able to pass symbolic repeals of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) many times during the final years of Obama’s presidency without being punished by voters, whereas even conservative parties in countries like Canada and the UK have to at least pretend to support maintaining their countries’ universal health care programs.

Don’t Single Out Poor Children

While I find these counterarguments compelling, if the conversation stops there I don’t think we’ve gotten to the core of the issue. Children have a right to eat a good meal before they’re expected to pay attention to their classes. They should be able to do so without jumping through hoops or being socially stratified.

My late friend Michael Brooks once wrote about the anxious look he’d see on his mother’s face when she was about to pay for groceries with her SNAP card — the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, popularly known as “food stamps.” When I read that, I thought about the hundreds of times I went through the school lunch line when I was a kid and heard the cafeteria worker ask each kid, “Free or reduced lunch?”

Even then, that viscerally bothered me. It seemed obvious that asking children to publicly announce their parents’ income level at school was wrong. I don’t remember what happened if anyone just forgot their lunch money — I don’t think the abomination of “school lunch debt” was a feature of the East Lansing public school system back then — but why on earth should anyone have to worry about any of this?

Even if you believe, as I very much do not, that inequality among adults is justifiable on meritocratic grounds, surely an absolute baseline that any halfway decent person could agree to is that children should all be treated the same while they’re at school.

And yet.

Democrats and Republicans Versus Hot Meals for Children

It’s to be expected that the market-worshipping ghouls at the Heritage Foundation would be against feeding children without first scrutinizing their parents’ bank accounts. It’s far more revealing that none of the alleged populists in the GOP are cosponsoring the Universal Free School Meals Act.

I don’t see J. D. Vance’s name on there. Or Marco Rubio. Or Josh Hawley. Or any other Republican. And seventeen Democratic senators — plus Bernie, an independent who caucuses with Democrats — adds up to only about a third of the Democrats in the Senate. The proportion of House Democrats cosponsoring is similar.

And again: these are the numbers for a bill to feed children. A bill to eliminate “school meal debt.”

A society where any of this is controversial is deeply sick.