Politics & Government

Trump’s possible USDA secretary targets waste in National School Lunch Program

Students at the Maurice J. Tobin K-8 School in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood eat free lunches consisting of a sandwich with meat, a vegetable dish, a piece of fruit and milk, Sept. 4, 2013.
Students at the Maurice J. Tobin K-8 School in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood eat free lunches consisting of a sandwich with meat, a vegetable dish, a piece of fruit and milk, Sept. 4, 2013. AP

If Sid Miller heads to Washington, he’s not done with the issue that vaulted him to statewide office in Texas: school lunches.

Miller, the Texas agriculture commissioner, said in an interview with McClatchy that he would cut portions of the National School Lunch Program if nominated as President-elect Donald Trump’s agriculture secretary.

“The free and reduced lunch program needs an overhaul,” Miller said. “It’s absolutely crazy to give free and reduced lunches to 60 percent of the people that get it. We’re just giving them away, and I’ve got a plan to address that. We can probably save several billion dollars, and I discussed that with the transition team.”

Miller said he was not opposed to giving free lunches to children who needed them but that he was concerned about wasteful government spending in the program.

The National School Lunch Program, signed into law in 1946 by President Harry Truman, has evolved into a $11.3 billion-a-year program that reimburses schools for providing free or reduced-price lunch to students if their families fall below a certain income level.

In 2016, nearly 62 percent of Texas students took part in the program, with the federal government distributing nearly $2 billion in reimbursements in the state.

“Parents have a lot on their plate to make sure that kids get the food that they need every day,” said Jenny Eyer, manager of health and nutrition programs for Children at Risk, a Texas nonprofit that supports the school lunch program.

The free meals for many Texas children are “the only meals they are going to get all day long,” Eyer said. “To take those away would be very detrimental.”

The Office of Federal Budget and Management named the school lunch program one of its “high-error programs” in 2015. The White House-controlled agency estimates the lunch program makes nearly $2 billion annually in “improper payments,” meaning the government gives money to people who don’t need it or recipients are using federal funds improperly.

The National School Lunch Program’s estimated 15.7 percent improper payment rate is the second highest among the 10 biggest “high-error” federal programs, trailing only the Income Earned Tax Credit’s 23.8 percent rate.

In contrast, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as food stamps, has an estimated 3.7 percent improper payment rate.

“The USDA has been working hard to bring that improper payment rate down by increasing direct certification,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of School Nutrition Association, a nonprofit that provides low-cost lunches to thousands of schools. The U.S. Department of Agriculture administers the lunch program.

Pratt-Heavner said there had been recent efforts to put kids already on food stamps in the free and reduced-price lunch program automatically, reducing improper payments and making it easier for low-income parents to navigate government bureaucracy.

Miller is also concerned that the school lunch program is rife with fraud and that if a school drops out of the program due to questionable payments “they can come right back in the program, no questions asked, and do the same thing again.”

The number of students who receive free and reduced-price lunches in a school is often used as a measure of poverty for researchers, grant administrators and educators. More kids with free lunch benefits often leads to more funding for schools.

“As with any such massive federal program, the opportunity for fraud is something every taxpayer should be concerned with,” Miller spokesman Mark Loeffler said in an email.

Miller met with senior Trump advisers Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus in Florida recently, and he is one of several Texans under consideration for agriculture secretary under Trump.

Miller said he’d discussed downsizing portions of the lunch program as a way to cut government waste during the meeting. He famously began his tenure as Texas agriculture commissioner by granting “amnesty” to a cupcake.

The cost of the school lunch program pales in comparison with large defense contracts, such as the $379 billion F-35 fighter jet program that has been criticized by Trump.

Alex Daugherty: 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty