Free food isn’t free

The cost of the state’s new “free” school food program has ballooned 20 percent in just six months. Unexpectedly.

The state of Minnesota issued its updated budget forecast yesterday. Much media attention focused on the alleged near-term “surplus.” Rather less attention is being paid to the looming budget deficits, estimated at $2.3 billion for the two-year cycle 2026-27 (pages 13-14), and growing thereafter.

As the logic would predict, future deficits are caused by a combination of less revenue than anticipated along with greater than anticipated spending.

On the spending side, Minnesota Management and Budget (MMB) forecasters are seeing expenditures coming in nearly $1 billion above forecast for the next two years.

The state government budget is very simple: two line items (Health and Human Services and K-12 Education) account for two-thirds of all spending. Not surprisingly, those two items account for exactly 70 percent of the higher-than-anticipated spending.

Within the K-12 education category, the largest single line item of overspending (accounting for 40 percent) is the brand-new school nutrition program. You will recall that Democrats in the legislature insisted that state taxpayers fork out for two meals a day for every public schoolchild, regardless of family income.

Expansion of the school food program to (relatively) rich kids added an additional $200 million a year to the existing statewide school food budget. Except that it actually adds another $240 million a year, as MMB forecasters missed the mark by 20 percent.

To be clear: the program will not result in a single additional meal being served. It merely shifts who is paying for it. Previously, public-school parents paid for these meals directly through the school. Now public-school parents (and everyone else) pay for these meals through their state taxes, along with the added cost of the extra bureaucrats to administer the new program.

The ink on the budget has been dry for less than six months. I can find no other budget item where forecasters have been this far off.

MMB attributes the extra cost to the extra program to higher per-meal reimbursement rates. But MMB also notes the following (p. 58),

Additionally, early data from this school year indicate that participation in the program is above the estimates assumed at the time of enactment.

No one at MMB could foresee that free money being offered, with no oversight or accountability, would be wildly popular. Even public-school bureaucrats respond to incentives.

Many people have advised me not to write about this subject. “Who can argue with feeding hungry children?” However, as we found out with the Feeding Our Future scandal, there are no hungry children in Minnesota.

Off the top of my head, I can name six (6) other free-food-for-children programs operated by state government. None of those programs had a single dollar removed from their budgets to account for the new school program.

Your tax dollars at work.