by Joseph Coletti
Senior Fellow, Fiscal Studies, John Locke Foundation
From the headline to the details, everything about a recent North Carolina Health News story illustrates what is wrong with the way too many government programs try to help. The program in this case is the US Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service Program, which is intended to provide food to students who receive free and reduced lunch during the school year. Families do not need to register and children do not need to provide identification. Anyone under 18 can show up and get a meal.
The headline, “Local, National Barriers Leave Millions of Child Feeding Dollars on the Table,” is more focused on the money left unspent than whether the program actually helps, perhaps because NCHN takes the benefit as a given. If the program accomplishes something worthwhile, the reasoning would go, then more money is better than less. A county Department of Social Services explained the county was implementing a summer food program to use the federal dollars, though the urban county had not figured out a good way to actually connect the food to the students in need. Children must eat at the distribution site and cannot take food with them. Schools with high free and reduced lunch enrollment in some counties may be far removed from the places where those students actually live.
Fortunately, the Department of Public Instruction has contracted with private organizations to manage the program. These organizations at least have summer food distribution as their main mission. Not everyone puts the children first:
Feeding all the eligible children in the state, even for one day, could purchase several million dollars of North Carolina products, such as sweet potatoes, blueberries, meat and bread.
“That’s money that would go directly into these local economies,” said [UNC School of Government’s Maureen] Berner. “There would be a multiplier effect from that to all the businesses. It’s a win-win-win situation for the kids, for the businesses and for the farmers if there’s a way for the local government to coordinate this.”
There may be better ways to get food to children. Certainly there are ways to actually make sure children, not distributing federal tax dollars, are the priority.