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Hardin County Schools has decided to say no to the Community Eligibility Option, part of President Obama’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The federal government program set into motion in December 2010 would have provided a free lunch to all students at qualifying schools in the district.
CEO is primarily intended to lower childhood obesity in the nation by improving the nutrition quality of food served to students while at school. By serving a free lunch to every student, it is also intended to reduce childhood hunger in school districts where at least 40% of students fall below the poverty line. Further, the program is intended to be more convenient for districts by reducing the administrative paperwork required to participate, while eliminating the stigma for children receiving free or reduced meals by serving one to every student in the school.
HCS isn’t alone in passing on the plan. Kentucky is one of three states, including Michigan and Illinois that are part of a pilot test of the CEO program. Tennessee was originally included in the pilot program, but opted out early on. Over 100 districts had at least one school qualify to be part of the CEO program, but so far less than 20 have signed on. This initially result should speak loudly about problems with CEO. Although CEO's goals are well-intentioned, Obama’s program represents a misuse of taxpayer money.
A government that is struggling to find the finances to fund all its programs and services isn’t one that can afford to further over-extend itself to the degree that this act will result in. And students from families who can afford to pay for a cafeteria school lunch or otherwise brown-bag their meal shouldn’t receive a free one. Using taxpayer money to feed those who can provide for themselves isn’t good stewardship of the public’s money.
The problem Hardin County Schools sees with the program is its impact on money coming from the Child Nutrition Program that funds free and reduced-price meals. If opting into participating in the Community Eligibility Option, the district would lose a significant portion of its CNF money. What looks good on paper doesn’t always prove to be in reality.
It’s understandable why some with short-sighted viewpoints might fault the district for saying no to the program, but the decision made is a wise one. No matter how you prepare and serve it, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
This editorial represents a consensus of The News-Enterprise editorial board.