Free school breakfast makes poor kids lazy, Dennis Prager argues at The National Review, and besides, it's totally unnecessary, because you can get breakfast for about $1 at many fast food restaurants. Prager has some good ideas — but he's applying them to the wrong people. His case would be more compelling if he applied it to the most notorious free breakfast moochers, the legions of business travelers who gorge themselves at the free continental trough at hotel chains across the country. First, let's look at why Prager's case against breakfast doesn't work for poor school kids.
In 2012, the Los Angeles Unified School District started a program aimed at raising the number of students who ate school breakfast from 29 percent to 70 percent by bringing food to classrooms, the Los Angeles Times reported. Dozens of studies have shown that eating breakfast helps kids learn, so the district wanted to cover the kids who skipped breakfast in the cafeteria because they arrived late or were playing with friends. But the district decided to end the program in April because teachers said it was messy and distracting, and Prager feels vindicated: the "breakfast program is not only meaningless; it is quite destructive," he writes today. Do not be fooled — destructive and meaningless is a more dangerous combination than you might think. He writes:
It is inconceivable that there are five, let alone 200,000 or the projected 450,000, homes in Los Angeles that cannot afford breakfast for their child. A nutritious breakfast can be had for less than a dollar. For examples, go to the website "webMD" which lists five "Breakfast Ideas for a Buck."
While Prager's case — there are no hungry kids in Los Angeles, because of webMD — is compelling, it has some flaws. Three of the first five breakfasts listed on the page Prager links to are actually more than $1. All five are from fast food restaurants. Concerned parents can pick the Burger King Ham Omelet Sandwich, which offers 13 grams of fat and 870 milligrams of sodium, or the Burger King French Toast Sticks, of which you get three for $1.08 and 13 grams of fat. French toast sticks do not offer the nutrients little bodies and brains need to grow.
More important, Prager somewhat underestimates the number of hungry people in Los Angeles. In 2009, more than 1.7 million people living in Los Angeles County struggled with not having enough food, according to research by Feeding America, based on statistics from the Agriculture Department, Census Bureau, and other government agencies. Half of them did not meet the requirement for food stamps, which at the time was $28,655 a year for a family of four. A 2007 study by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research found that 30 percent of adults who needed food assistance had had to choose between buying food and paying the rent, and 28 percent had had to pick between food and medical care.
But feeding kids who should be able to buy their own damn french toast sticks is the least of it. Free breakfast "both enables and encourages irresponsible, disinterested, and incompetent parenting," Prager writes. Since french toast sticks are so cheap, "any home that cannot provide its child with breakfast demands a visit from child protective services." Generally speaking, it's a bad idea to punish kids for adults' bad behavior. Conservatives usually agree with this — that's why so many conservatives, such as Dennis Prager, support vouchers for private schools so poor kids aren't stuck in failing public ones.
Worst of all, though, is that free breakfast makes poor kids so lazy. Prager writes, "the free breakfast profoundly weakens young people's character. When you grow up learning to depend on the state, you will almost inevitably — even understandably — assume that the state will take care of you." A smarter policy, presumably, would be to allow kids' growling stomachs to give them the incentive to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. An impoverished but enterprising third grader would soon figure out, say, how to buy french toast sticks in bulk and sell them at a profit to their less-motivated starving peers.
Nevertheless, we must give credit where credit is due. Prager makes a compelling case about the negative impact of free stuff on the psyche of all Americans. While we wouldn't punish poor schoolchildren for having parents who can't afford to feed them, or won't do it because they're bad parents, we can think of another group of Americans that needs a kick in the pants: business travelers. Business travelers have, for decades, feasted on free breakfast at hotels — both fancy and chain. And look at the result. Fiscal crisis. Housing collapse. China basically owns us. What else can we blame this on but the corrosive effects of hotel breakfast? Think about it:
- Free hotel meals encourage sloth, as business travelers are not motivated to rise early and seek out breakfast on their own.
- Free hotel breakfast stifles the hunger to innovate, because it lulls business travelers into a sense of complacency, teaching them they can depend on the faceless largess of the corporation.
- Free hotel breakfast robs business travelers of precious business opportunities that arise from serendipitous interactions at local cafes and coffee shops in unfamiliar cities.
- Free hotel breakfast smothers creativity, because it teaches the business traveler to find comfort in the bland offerings of the continental breakfast buffet — plain bagels, the same old jelly packets, Cheerios, a hard-boiled egg if you're lucky. Steve Jobs didn't invent the iPad by eating Wonderbread toast every day.
With that in mind, here's a message for Dennis Prager in his campaign to kill free breakfast: You first.