The idea that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch,” or TNSTAAFL, is Econ 101; yet, government bureaucrats and bleeding heart liberals don’t seem to think that it applies to the National School Lunch Program.

The public school system is a precious jewel of the liberal establishment, and “free” school lunches are something of a sacred cow. In fact, liberals are quite proud that they have been able to increase the number of kids dependent on the government to 31 million. The website of the National Lunch Program boasts that 219 billion lunches have been served since the program was created in 1946. The uninformed citizen might see this as a benevolent miracle performed by the mighty hand of the 21st century god called Government. Bread from Heaven! No more starving children! Who needs that magic sky-god of the ancient Israelites when we have Lord Government to feed us?

All of this is fine and dandy until we put our thinking caps on and apply a little reason to the situation. If nothing is free, then how much do these lunches really cost? Answer: a whopping $14 billion per year to the American taxpayer. The graph below shows the gigantic growth of federal expenditures on school lunches since 1977.

Children from families with incomes up to 130% above the poverty level ($29,055 for a family of four) are eligible for free lunches (and by extension breakfast, snacks, etc.). Children from families with incomes between 130% and 185% above the poverty level ($41,348 for a family of four) are eligible for reduced-priced meals, which cannot exceed 40 cents.

So what’s the big deal? 

The big deal is that this entitlement significantly adds to the national debt, redistributes wealth, artificially increases prices, and contributes to child obesity.

Costing $14 billion per year, it requires little argument to show that these lunches are hardly free. Similarly, it is easy to show how this program redistributes wealth. Though many Americans may perceive the massive cost to be covered by the government – as if it is some mysterious and far away entity — it really comes on the taxpayers’ dime. Also, due to the stringent nutritional standards imposed by the National School Lunch Program, prices are artificially inflated for students who have to actually pay the full price for lunch.

But at least they are healthier, right? Wrong. One government study showed that most schools do comply with the nutritional standards, but at the same time offer extremely unhealthy, yet popular, junk food items a la carte. Since the National School Lunch Program subsidizes the school lunches for more than they are worth, the schools use the extra money to buy junk food items which they sell to kids for profit. If that doesn’t make your stomach turn over, I don’t know what will! In the name of stopping child hunger we are increasing child obesity. Oh, the irony of government intervention!

My final argument against the National School Lunch Program is not an economic argument, but rather a moral one: “It is not the role of government to feed people.” That controversial statement was made by my friend and mentor Kevin Kookogey, the chairman of the Republican Party in Williamson County, TN (TN Journal Vo. 38 No. 14). His words are true. The fundamental role of government is to protect our natural rights (i.e. life, liberty, property), not to feed people.

At this point, you probably see me as either a libertarian saint or an arrogant, rich, white kid who wants all hungry children to die on the streets. I hope you will see that I am neither.

Do you care about feeding the hungry? Do you really care about helping starving children? Then do something about it. I mean, you yourself do something about it. Don’t just sit back and expect the government to solve anything. I don’t believe that we as Americans have a political responsibility to feed the hungry, but I do believe that I as a Christian have a moral responsibility to feed the hungry, especially children. As the great conservative historian Russell Kirk once said, “Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems” (The Conservative Mind, pg. 7).

If you want to feed the hungry then do it! Do it out of the kindness of your heart or, hopefully, do it because God wants you to, not because the government mandates it. Give to your church, donate to charity, find a need and fill it. Don’t rely on the malnutritious lunches paid for by the National School Lunch Program to feed the children of America; and whatever you do, don’t call them free.

Alan Groves | Freed-Hardeman University | @AlanGroves2