Editor’s Note: This is the second in a three-part series on Project 2025.

Aside from the U.S. Department of Education, perhaps no government agency has been more of a target of far-right extremists in our country over the years than the Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The USDA has a massive portfolio of responsibilities, including managing the U.S. farm system, keeping our food safe, overseeing U.S. forest policy, and rural development. But none of its many roles receives more scrutiny from conservatives than Food and Nutrition Services (FNS), the agency that directs policies related to food assistance programs.

Three of these programs directly involve schoolchildren: the National School Breakfast Program (NSBP), the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), and the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP). The first two provide meals before and during the school day, while a component of CACFP (CACFP-At Risk) serves after-school snacks and dinners to children enrolled in supplemental educational programs.

Each is a “means-tested” program. Students must come from families with incomes below a maximum threshold to participate. The threshold is correlated with the poverty level and takes into account other factors.

The programs are designed to subsidize school meal programs. Students who meet certain thresholds receive free meals, others pay a reduced price or full price. Budget shortfalls must be paid for out of the school’s general funds.

Over the years, this has created a complicated, multi-tier system for school nutrition departments to manage their meal programs. Periodically, they must solicit applications from parents who, in turn, must provide proof of income or other qualifying documentation. This is especially burdensome for small schools and those with large numbers of low-income students.

The Obama Administration introduced the “Community Eligibility Provision” (CEP) to reduce these complications as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Schools participating in CEP can opt out of requiring families to apply for free or reduced meals if more than 40% of the student population qualifies for free or reduced meals.

These schools can then provide free meals for all students. Depending on the number of qualifying students, the subsidies they receive from USDA often make up for any funds they lose from students who paid full-price.

CEP has revolutionized how schools feed the children under their care. It has reduced the bureaucracy associated with federal programs, which people from all ideological backgrounds claim to support. This has proven to be a further financial incentive for schools.

More importantly, however, CEP helps reduce the stigma placed on children and families who receive free or reduced-price meals.

I was in elementary school in the early 1980s when the morning roll call coincided with collecting lunch money from students. When the teacher called our name, we would walk to the front of the class and give her our lunch money. 

Those who received free meals, however, had to call out “free.” I can’t imagine how humiliating that must have been.

Most schools have moved beyond that practice, but there are still ways that students from lower-income households get singled out as “less than.” When every child eats free, no child is singled out.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, FNS expanded the provisions in CEP to all schools and reduced many of the regulations governing how and when meals could be distributed.

As I am writing these words, I am visiting friends in Liberty, Missouri. Norah, age 10 and about to enter fifth grade, just came into the room where I am working and asked what I was doing. 

I told her I was writing about CEP and explained what it is in a way that a ten-year-old could understand. She replied, “Oh yeah, we got that during the pandemic.”

I then asked what she thought about the people in her school who she knows receive free meals. She shrugged her shoulders and said, “I don’t think anything different about them. They are my friends.”

Certainly, some of Norah’s attitude can be attributed to her kind-hearted nature. But I suspect some of it is also because she remembers receiving free meals during the pandemic. It is a part of her lived experience.

Conservative ideologues have long used these programs for children to prove a point about taxes. “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” they say, pointing to the reality that tax dollars pay for school meals. They have often used the programs as their preferred punching bags, threatening to place them on the chopping block during every election season.

The Biden Administration has sought to make the COVID-19-era provisions for CEP permanent, but House Republicans have blocked this. However, conservatives aren’t content with simply restricting the expansion of CEP.

Project 2025, the Heritage Foundation’s agenda for the first few months of a potential second Trump Presidency, calls for the complete elimination of the Community Eligibility Provision and the end of the Summer Food Service Program for students not enrolled in summer school.

Their reasoning is that these programs are “directed to serve children in need, not become an entitlement for students from middle- and upper-income homes.” 

One problem with this is that conservatives, including the Heritage Foundation, have long advocated for a radical redefinition of what it means to be “in need.” They have sought to decrease the income thresholds for participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which is one of the data points that determines CEP eligibility.

The main problem, however, is that it continues the attack on those experiencing poverty in the name of “limited government.” School nutrition programs account for less than a fraction of a percent of the total federal budget, yet they continue to be demonized as if we are bleeding money by feeding children.

For Christians, the biblical witness is not confusing on this matter. According to Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, our very salvation is dependent on how we take care of those who are hungry.

Some Christians respond with, “Yeah, but that’s the church’s job, not the government’s.”

To that, I say the biblical witness is also not confusing. Wisdom is a virtue we should, if we don’t have it, pray for.

I’m not a wise person, but I’m wise enough to know that if God calls us to do something, we should use every tool in our garden shed to accomplish it. Some of those tools include the shovels and pickaxes of church food pantries, backpack programs, and personal assistance.

But here in the United States, we also have the massive combine-harvester-level tools of the federal governnment. In the coming months, I’ll be praying for wisdom on how we can best use this tool to serve Jesus-in-disguise.

Relative to most of the other challenges we have faced head-on as a nation, feeding every child who attends public schools for free is actually fairly easy and inexpensive. It makes logistical and financial sense.

Even if it didn’t, it would be the right thing to do.

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