No Such Thing as an Arizona Free Lunch

Subsidized school lunches always seemed like a government program most people could get behind. The federal program gives food to low-income children. Giving food to children who live in poverty—hard to argue with that idea.

In 2010, I was covering a state legislative race out in East Texas. A Tea Party candidate explained to me that free school lunches are bad for society, because were it not for the government program, parents would provide food for their kids on their own. If the kids still couldn't get food, then he believed churches and charities should pick up the slack, rather than the government. But sadly for my Tea Party friend, in Texas, free lunches may be one of the few federal programs that hasn't stirred up too much controversy.

Nationally, however, there's been no shortage of criticism of the program, particularly last year as Congress considered a proposal that would make meals more nutritious. The legislative fight soon became about which agriculture sectors had the most clout and whether the government should be getting so detailed in its requirements. That proposal ultimately got blocked, but a couple weeks ago, the Obama administration created new regulations on its own, requiring more fruits and green vegetables and cutting the amount of fat and salt. (For those who were following the fight last fall, tomato paste still counts as a vegetable.)

In response to the new regulations, the Arizona state senate has just passed a bill to make the school-lunch program optional. In other words, elementary and middle schools, currently required to offer free lunches to those students who qualify for the federal program, now can opt out. According to the Tucson Citizen, the bill's author argues that the measure is only fair. High schools and charter schools aren't required to offer free lunch, so why should traditional middle schools and elementary schools? He also argues that the new regulations may be too onerous.

So it may be that my Texas Tea Party acquaintance will get to see his theory tested after all, just in a nearby state. Complaints of heavy regulations sound more appetizing to voters than the argument that government programs feeding poor kids are bad for society. But one has to wonder if the latter point of view—so honestly laid out in East Texas—isn't some of what's driving the school-lunch policy "reform" effort in Arizona and in Washington.