And Republicans are trying to defund them

By Matthew Kassel
February 07, 2018
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photo by Tom Merton via getty images

One ostensible effect of Barack Obama’s social policies that gets little notice but that Donald Trump can now take credit for is that more low-income kids are eating school breakfast than ever before, according to a recent report by the Food Research and Action Center, which says that 12.1 million low-income children are eating breakfast at school every day. That represents a 3.7 percent increase, the report says, from the prior school year—or an additional 433,000 kids. But it’s unlikely Trump will hail those numbers as a victory, because Republicans want to change what is seen by those in the school breakfast trenches as the main driver of that increase: the Community Eligibility Provision (or CEP), a key aspect of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act that was put into effect at the end of 2010.

Basically, CEP allows the country's most impoverished schools to offer breakfast and lunch at no charge to all students. Schools that opt for CEP—and there are more than 18,000, or half of those eligible—are reimbursed based on a formula that takes into account the number of students who qualify for food stamps and other types of welfare. Those who support CEP say it obviates the need for eligibility applications and eliminates an onerous layer of paperwork. CEP also reduces the stigma associated with participating in a school breakfast program, according to Crystal Fitzsimons, director of school and out-of-school time programs at FRAC. 

You can see why Republicans might not go for it, though. It’s the literal embodiment of the kind of “free lunch” welfare that conservatives are constantly railing against, giving kids in the middle class reason to believe, so the thinking goes, that they shouldn’t have to pay for breakfast and lunch because their school gives it away at seemingly no cost. “We are arguing that Congress should address CEP before passing any child nutrition reauthorization bill,” Daren Bakst, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, recently told Caitlin Dewey of The Washington Post. Currently, schools in which 40 percent of the student body is on some sort of welfare, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, qualify for CEP. Republicans advocate for an eligibility rate of 60 percent. 

But according to Betti Wiggins, the executive director of the Office of School Nutrition for Detroit Public Schools, who is something of a maverick in the world of school food advocacy, that number will cut out lower-middle-class students in places like Indiana and suburban Rust Belt towns. Those students, Wiggins says, actually benefit from the program but don’t otherwise qualify for welfare because their parents’ income is just a bit too high. “I’m a big supporter of CEP, not for kids who are patently poor, who I know we’re going to take care of, but the kids who live at the end of the cul de sac,” said Wiggins. “We’ve been taking care of these lower-middle-class kids now for five years, and all of a sudden they’re going to snatch the rug out from underneath them?”

Wiggins, whose district was one of the first in the nation to adopt CEP, compares the Republican interest in changing the program to “repeal and replace” of the Affordable Care Act. CEP, she says, saved money on the administrative end, which allowed her to serve kids more “high quality food.” “To me, this is just morally reprehensible,” Wiggins said. “It’s a program that costs peanuts—you couldn’t even buy an F-15 with the money you’ve saved.”Whether or not Republicans will alter CEP remains to be seen—they have a lot on the docket. But a Republican majority in Congress, as Dewey points out in the Post, means that CEP as it is might not last for long, despite the perceived benefits. “Ultimately, the CEP allows more students to be fed, and from a moral and national interest standpoint, I think that is good,” said Jennifer Rutledge, an assistant professor in the department of political science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the author of Feeding the Future: The Emergence of School Lunches as Global Social Policy. “Well-fed students make better learners and will ultimately be better able to participate in society.”