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Education Reporter

Feds 'Out to Lunch' on School Lunch Program
While enterprising principals make hay at sacred cow's expense

WASHINGTON, DC - In 1995, Congressional Republicans were hard at work on their "Contract With America." One of their targets for reform was the federal school lunch program, but howls of protest from Democrats and the liberal media successfully drowned out any sensible discussion of the program's problems. Republicans were portrayed as heartless monsters who wanted to starve schoolchildren, and the issue was set aside.

The program's need for an overhaul didn't go away, however, and fewer and fewer students ate the over-regulated lunches prescribed by special interest groups intent on dictating the eating habits of American schoolchildren. Enterprising principals obligingly plugged the gap.

In the Washington Post (Mar. 31, 1999), Douglas Besharov, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research and a professor at the University of Maryland's School of Public Affairs, described how some D.C. principals sell pizza, hot dogs and snacks to students desperate for an alternative to government fare. One middle school principal was "placed on administrative leave with pay" for "the unauthorized selling of pizzas" and using the profits for "staff stipends, Christmas gifts, landscaping, and other school-related expenses."

Besharov chronicled his visit to a high school cafeteria in which the long line moved very slowly due to the dearth of workers behind the counter. When he asked why there were so few servers, he was told that, since part-time workers and volunteers had given way to "union and political pressures" and now servers must be paid "$10 to $14.50 per hour for seven hours," even though needed for only three hours a day, the school district could not afford salaries for a sufficient number of workers.

When Besharov tried the food, he found it "so greasy and salty that it was hard to eat." He reported that many of the kids avoided the cafeteria altogether, preferring instead to visit the principal's office where various goodies were available for sale. He was advised that "the sales revenue was used to buy sports equipment and other items" not included in the school's budget.

Across the country, principals are circumventing the school lunch program and bringing in food from the outside that their students will actually eat. Besharov declined to speculate on the legality of such actions, but he noted that "breaking or bending the rules is not a good solution." He bemoaned the "sacred cow" that the school lunch program has become, suggesting that "we need a new recipe for federal food aid" to schools.

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