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Editor’s Note: Free lunches add to federal waste

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

The federal government has a knack for wasting money. One effort that’s expanding quickly nationwide is the Community Eligibility Program, which offers meals at no cost to all students at qualifying schools, whether individual students need a free lunch or not.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture rolled out the program officially last fall, after it was first tested in a few states, including Michigan.

Jackson Public Schools recently added three new schools to the program, so 80 percent of students in the district are now covered. That district isn’t alone. As of September, 181 districts in Michigan participated in the program—620 individual schools serving more than 260,000 students.

And more will join those ranks. The bar for schools to sign up is low; only 40 percent of students need to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. If 60 percent of students qualify, then the federal government picks up the entire tab.

The Community Eligibility Program falls under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which has driven many districts in other states out of the national school lunch program because of higher food costs and fewer students who want the healthier, less tasty offerings.

This program is upheld as a benefit for districts because it does away with the “stigma” for low-income students and reduces paperwork for parents and administrators. But free lunches don’t come cheap to taxpayers, and it’s hard to defend how giving food away to students who don’t need it—or even want it—benefits those who truly depend on assistance.