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Putting enough on their plates
On Milton Friedman, free school lunches, and the nasty problem of food insecurity
In most cases, the kinds of social safety-net interventions that do the most good are the ones that maximize the freedom that individuals have to make their own choices. For instance: While it isn't the only answer, one step that could do considerable good for ensuring access to affordable shelter is for local authorities to stay out of the micromanagement of housing. Zoning reforms that stay out of the way of multifamily construction would do a lot of good for making shelter more affordable in many places.
■ Similarly, when trying to lift people out of poverty, direct cash payments and simple transfers like the Earned Income Tax Credit support personal freedom and allow the recipients to concentrate on those priorities that matter most to them. In general: the simpler, the better. In approving of the principle of a negative income tax (like the EITC), Milton Friedman argued, "The heart of the liberal philosophy is a belief in the dignity of the individual, in his freedom to make the most of his capacities and opportunities according to his own lights, subject only to the proviso that he not interfere with the freedom of other individuals to do the same."
■ Perhaps the (partial) exception that best supports the rule comes from a real-world experiment which is soon to expire: The significant expansion of free school meal programs, funded by the US Department of Agriculture. As a means of responding to the closure of schools and the consequential disappearance of congregate meal settings (kids can't eat in the school lunch room if schools are closed), the changes first implemented in 2020 allowed schools to revise and expand their meal programs.
■ The exception is only partial, of course: Relaxing some of the restrictions on things like meal delivery and portioning actually deregulated the program from the Federal level and gave local administrators more freedom to act as they saw most prudent. On the other hand, funding food specifically, and for the specific population of school-aged children, is the part that runs contrary to targeting the safety net to the people most in need and doing so with cash or the closest things to it.
■ But if there is one population a society should be willing to serve most generously, it is children -- as they neither made the choice to be born, nor have much if any control over their material circumstances. And nutrition in particular is, aside from water and shelter, as basic a physiological need as they come.
■ Obviously, universally free school meals aren't targeted by incomes, meaning many children from families that can afford healthy food will receive benefits for which they are not "in need", in the conventional sense. But making meal programs universal simplifies bureaucratic oversight and maximizes access by taking away both the paperwork burdens for parents and the stigma that can be associated with receiving free or reduced-price lunches.
■ Kids are influenced by social pressures, and eliminating the payment process removes barriers to getting food into the bellies of kids who might go hungry. Moreover, getting children fed through school nutrition programs ensures that food cannot be withheld from them by malicious or negligent parents -- while also alleviating some of the difficulty that some parents may have in finding and preparing an adequately nutritious diet at home. Food deserts remain a thorny problem, and accountable programs for child nutrition can help overcome some of the gaps in food access that kids might otherwise experience.
■ Seen as a tool for reducing regulatory and social obstacles to child welfare, in much the same way that direct cash transfers to adults help reduce the "high price of being poor", universal free-meal programs in schools deserve to be assessed as a well-targeted, well-justified exception to an otherwise maximally laissez-faire social safety net.