There are no free lunches: not even ‘free’ school lunches

Chris Rickert:

Madisonians usually aren’t too keen on doling out public subsidies to people who don’t need them.

There’s that old saw about “tax breaks for millionaires,” of course, but also past outrage over a proposed taxpayer loan for Edgewater hotel renovators and brewing discontent over a potential taxpayer loan for the Judge Doyle Square developer.

Providing government-funded breakfast and lunch to every student in seven Madison public schools, though, probably won’t inspire similar objections about welfare for the schools’ middle- and upper-class children.

Free meals for some 2,800 children at Allis, Falk, Lake View, Leopold, Mendota, Sherman and Wright schools could start next year through a 4-year-old federal program to provide meals to all students at schools in high-poverty areas. On average, about 77 percent of students at the seven Madison schools were “economically disadvantaged” last school year, according to data from the state Department of Public Instruction. That means about 2,100 students were already eligible for subsidized meals though the federal government’s long-standing — and necessary — free-and-reduced-price lunch program.

But if the schools are accepted into the program, parents of the rest will no longer have to buy the Cheerios, juice boxes, and peanut-butter-and-jelly fixings they’ve proved capable of buying until now.

Assuming a 10 percent increase in meals, up to $1.5 million in federal dollars would cover the cost-shifting, according to district spokeswoman Rachel Strauch-Nelson. That would make the program cost-neutral for the district — if not for taxpayers at large.