On Friday, the New York Times editorial “The School Lunch Barometer” complained that the federally run school-lunch program’s growing enrollment is evidence of the nation’s continued economic downturn. 

The economic downturn is driving more and more families into the ranks of the poor and the “near poor” who barely make it from paycheck to paycheck. This pattern is chillingly clear from the rising numbers of formerly middle-class children now qualifying for free or low-cost meals under the federally financed school lunch program. . . .

A recent analysis of federal data by The Times showed that the number of children receiving subsidized lunches rose to 21 million in the last school year from 18 million in 2006-7, a 17 percent increase. During that period, nearly a dozen states — including Nevada, Florida, Tennessee and New Jersey — experienced increases of 25 percent or more. In New York City, as of last month, a little more than 62 percent of the city’s children were eligible for free lunch — up from around 57 percent in 2007.

Indeed, it’s disturbing to consider that participation in the school-lunch program has increased a full 17 percent since 2006, but it is also important to understand just how kids are enrolled in this school-based welfare program in the first place. 

Kids are signed up in one of two ways: 1) parents take the steps to actually fill out and submit paperwork provided by the school so that their children can receive free or reduced-price meals; or, 2) a child is automatically enrolled using a process called “direct certification” whereby a school district obtains lists of families enrolled in other federal food-assistance programs (such as food stamps or TANF) and then automatically enrolls those children in the school meal program. 

In 2008, Congress kindly relieved parents of that bothersome paperwork by mandating direct certification of children whose families participate in the food-stamp program. This Congressional action sent a message to parents that they really aren’t expected to feed their kids and need not be involved in their children’s eating habits (which studies show really is the key to keeping kids healthy). Why take the extra step to get involved in your child’s nutrition if the government automatically enrolls kids in these feeding programs? After all, in most cases, kids are getting three meals a day at school. 

In 2010, parents were further marginalized when the direct-certification program expanded; allowing school districts to snoop into families’ Medicaid record. Now, in addition to food stamps and TANF, children reliant on Medicaid are now automatically enrolled in school feeding programs. 

There’s no doubt that families are suffering in this economy, and many families formerly able to survive without government assistance are now finding they need some extra help. But the increased participation in school feeding programs doesn’t just signal increased need; it is a sign of a bigger government — a government determined to take over the care and feeding of children by sidelining parents.