According to a report from Watchdog.org, students in many Florida schools are being offered free breakfast and lunch meals regardless of their families’ individual income levels. Under a new federal program called the Community Eligibility Option or CEO, if 40 percent or more of families in a school district are identified as low-income the entire school district’s meals are subsidized. From the report, this “includes 83 Duval County schools, 58 schools in Pinellas County and 48 schools in Polk County—to name three of Florida’s 67 eligible counties.” Florida is not alone, however. For the 2013-2014 school-year Georgia, Maryland, and Massachusetts will also be added to the program.
Kentucky was one of the first states enrolled in the program, along with Illinois and Michigan, in 2011 and according to a report from WKMS, things are working fairly smoothly. Since eligible school-districts are no longer required to collect and process applications for the program, it has significantly reduced overtime staff hours and actually cutting costs for both schools and families. Each student’s family “saves $500 each year by not paying for meals during the school day.” It also helps eliminate the social stigma of being “the poor kid” who has to get free lunch.
The alternative, need-based free lunch program is also susceptible to fraud, since given the numbers of applicants only “3 percent (or 3,000, whichever is less)” need to be verified, according to Watchdog.org. They also cite an Inspector General report from the Miami-Dade School district that cited a case where a teacher misreported her income getting free-lunch for her own children and misreporting her income by $58,000.
Concerns range from the ludicrous to the legitimate. The libertarian Cato Institute suggests that these programs “contribute to the problems of excess weight and obesity in many young people,” even though students are only entitled to one free lunch and not buffet-style access. However, because the school menus fall under federal control, some parents are concerned about the government’s influence over the food that can be served – from those who want healthier options to those who think the menus are too limited.