Student Well-Being

Fact Check: DeVos Doesn’t Control Who Gets a ‘Free Lunch’

By Evie Blad — February 24, 2017 2 min read
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Critics of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos are seizing on a comment she made at the Conservative Political Action Conference this week that she is “perhaps the first person to tell Bernie Sanders to his face that there’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

And many are wrongly claiming she suggested eliminating free lunches in the National School Lunch Program as part of her speech.

After a heated confirmation battle in which critics panned the wealthy donor’s education policy views as out-of-touch with the needs of everyday students, they’ve been quick to point out that millions of U.S. public school students actually do receive free lunches, and that many rely on those subsidized meals to make up for a deficit of nutrition at home.

But “no such thing as a free lunch” is a phrase dating back decades. And DeVos made no mention of school meals in her speech.

Many of the criticisms of her comments this week are based on inaccurate information.

DeVos Could End Nutrition Program For Poor Kids,” reads a headline in the International Business Times, which said “DeVos, a staunch opponent of public schools, is taking over the nation’s free lunch program that provides nutrition to low-income students.” That story was picked up by Yahoo! with the headline “DeVos Questions if Schools Should Provide Free Lunch.”

That’s not true.

The National School Lunch Program and the National School Breakfast Program are under the authority of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, not the Education Department. President Donald Trump has nominated former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue to be his agriculture secretary.

It is true that the programs have faced scrutiny from lawmakers in recent years. It is true that some policy proposals may have restricted the ability of some high-poverty schools to participate in a program that allows them to provide free lunches to all students with less red tape. And it is true that those discussions will likely continue in the future. But it’s not true that DeVos will be at the center of those decisions.

Of course, DeVos was using the aphorism to speak more broadly about her approach to government, not meals. And it’s worth debating how that broader view colors her approach to education policy. After all, more than half of America’s students now qualify for free and reduced-price meals, a common marker of poverty, and schools will be stretched to meet their needs both inside and outside the classroom.

But it’s also important to be accurate.

Photo: USDA

Further reading on school lunches and student nutrition:

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.