March 28, 2023 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Punish the hungry?

Free school lunches work, writes Noah Berlatsky.

Courtesy of the Times.
Courtesy of the Times.

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If a child is on the verge of starvation, you must call CPS, not spend hundreds of millions on disproportionately unhealthy lunches, a huge percentage of which are discarded,” conservative pundit Ben Shapiro told California Congressman Ted Lieu on Twitter. 

Shapiro is wrong. There’s a great deal of evidence that free school lunches reduce student hunger and improve children’s health.

Conservatives don’t necessarily care about good outcomes, though. That’s because they don’t want good outcomes. They want to police people.

Activists and advocates argue that helping people in need is more equitable, more just, and ultimately more cost-effective than immiserating people and then sending law-enforcement after them to immiserate them further.

The discourse around school lunches is a brutal, disturbing example of the broader carceral logic of rightwing politics. 

Republicans and those on the right believe that government should be used not to help those in need, but to punish and discipline marginalized people.

School lunches have been studied extensively, and there’s little question that they improve health outcomes for children.

Contrary to Shapiro’s claim that school lunches are unhealthy, research finds that children who receive free school meals are more likely to receive daily adequate nutrition and more likely to eat fruits and vegetables, and drink milk.

Shapiro also argues that school lunches are economically inefficient. He believes poor families don’t really exist, and that if children are hungry, it’s because they’re being abused, and they should be taken away from their parents. 

This is ludicrous. Real hunger and poverty do exist in the US. There are families that do not have money to afford both rent and food. There are families who want to care for their children but lack the resources to do so.

The US government estimates that 12.5 percent of households with children are food insecure, which means that there are times when they do not have enough food to feed everyone in the family.

In most cases, adults feed children first. But even given that, in 6.3 percent of households, children experienced food insecurity.

School meal programs are also incredibly efficient. One study found that every dollar spent on school meal programs saves two dollars in reduced health care costs and reduced poverty.

A study of Sweden found that free school lunch programs resulted in 3 percent higher lifetime earnings for children.

The greatest gains in earnings were among the poorest students. But even more affluent students benefited. 

In contrast, when CPS removes children from their home, they are at great risk. Children in the foster care system have higher risk of learning disabilities, depression, asthma and obesity. They are less likely to go to college.

CPS investigations also disproportionately target Black students. More than 50 percent of Black children in the US are subject to child welfare investigations. 

Discrimination is widespread. School officials are more likely to call child welfare about Black children. CPS is more likely to investigate Black families. Courts are more likely to remove Black children from homes.

Even if a family is not feeding their child as well as they could, school lunches are often a better option than removing children from the home. 

Direct aid can help children in difficult situations, whereas the foster care system can be traumatic and make things worse even for children with neglectful parents. 

School lunches reduce hunger, improve children’s lives, and reduce costs to society. Child welfare interventions are frequently racist and have negative health and education outcomes for children. They should be a last resort, not a substitute for aid.

So why does Shapiro prefer calling the authorities on poor families, rather than just helping them feed their children?

Dan McLaughlin, a writer at National Review, elucidated. He wrote a Twitter thread arguing that school lunches should be rolled back and child labor laws should be weakened.

“Literally, a ‘free lunch’ vs working,” he fulminated. “Perpetual childhood vs responsibility.”

McLaughlin and Shapiro see aid to hungry children as an assault on virtue. Having money is equated with work is equated with discipline and moral fiber. 

Feeding your children is a test of character. Those who succeed are good, upstanding people, who need no help from the dangerous liberal state. 

Those who fail are lazy and disreputable, and they should be policed by the virtuous conservative state.

Most people can see this logic is repulsive. Shapiro and McLaughlin think children should be denied food (and forced to work?!) in order to punish their parents for lack of discipline. 

That’s obviously monstrous.

But these arguments undergird much of how we approach poverty and the social safety net.

One egregious example is from 2021. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot took $281.5 million in covid relief funds — which could have been used on air filtration in schools, or to vaccinate underserved communities — and instead gave it to police.

Nationwide, since the 2008 recession, police budgets have rebounded, but education budgets have languished.

Spending money to help people in trouble — on schools, on health care, on libraries, on direct aid to children in poverty — is cost-effective and humane. 

But instead, we often choose to disinvest and then to criminalize the hunger, poverty and desperation that results.

This is the argument of the much-demonized defund the police movement. 

Activists and advocates argue that helping people in need is more equitable, more just, and ultimately more cost-effective than immiserating people and then sending law-enforcement after them to immiserate them further.

Do we want to pay to feed hungry children? Or would we rather pay law enforcement to harass them and their families?

Ben Shapiro, Dan McLaughlin and their ilk want to spend money on punitive authorities, because they dream of a world in which everyone is kept in their place by force. 

They oppose school lunches and every policy that has the potential to make the US more equal and more free.

Noah Berlatsky writes about the political economy for the Editorial Board. He lives in Chicago. Find him @nberlat.


  1. Bern on March 28, 2023 at 3:08 pm

    Forget it Noah, it’s Shapiro & ilk.
    They are losers as human beings, not worth bothering with.

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