Is there such thing as a free lunch?

An assortment of advocacy groups, teachers’ unions, and food banks recently penned a letter to provincial officials asking for the government to fund daily breakfast, lunch for all Ontario students. Photo credit: CBC


One of the best-known sayings of renowned economist and Nobel Prize winner Milton Friedman is “There is no such thing as a free lunch”. What he meant by that did not pertain to a mid-day meal, but rather that anyone who thought government could provide anything for “free” was sadly mistaken. Yet many people still believe that governments can spend money at nobody else’s expense. This belief has once again surfaced in Ontario, from a proposal put forward by all four major teachers’ unions, food banks and some advocacy groups to provide “free” breakfasts and lunches for Ontario students. 

The organizations laid out their demands in a letter to Education Minister Stephen Lecce and Children’s Minister Michael Parsa, stating that many children in Ontario are dealing with food insecurity which requires their families to depend on food banks. Recent sharp increases in food price inflation have worsened the issue. The solution they propose is a universal free breakfast and lunch program at all public schools, as well as ensuring that all schools have appropriate facilities and funding to deliver these meals. The groups claim that currently about 30 per cent of food bank users are under the age of 18. 

The prospect of children going hungry is indeed worrisome, but the notion that all taxpayers should be paying even more to offer free meals in public schools is hardly the answer. For starters, there are already many well-functioning meal programs in schools staffed by volunteers and funded voluntarily by parents, businesses and others in the community. Ontario’s School Nutrition Program deals with the children that are truly in need. Offering meals to every student regardless of need is unnecessary and wasteful. 

Furthermore, there has been much discussion of late around an over-dependence on government and lack of people taking responsibility for their own actions. Government taking on the role of feeding children at school can only increase the sentiment of some parents that they don’t need to be responsible for their own children’s welfare. If parents are not ensuring their children are being properly fed, it may be better to find out why that is happening rather than encourage parental lack of responsibility. 

Children who get used to being fed at school also will grow up believing the state is responsible for providing basic needs. As well, if these programs become established they will likely never be removed. Inflation is indeed worrisome at present, but it has started to abate and will continue to do so, reducing the need for food banks and similar programs in future. 

Despite teachers’ unions and others’ claims that the Ontario government is cutting back on education spending, the truth is that government spending on education continues to rise significantly every year. As well, studies show that Ontario spends the highest percentage of total education dollars on teacher and staff compensation relative to other provinces. Currently, Ontario teachers’ and other staff compensation claims almost 80 per cent of total education dollars, as compared to about 72 per cent 15 years ago. It’s more than a little hypocritical for the teachers’ unions to suck up as much money from taxpayers as they can then turn around and suggest even more should be spent on a mandatory meal program. 

When you consider the groups that are involved with this proposal, they are all left-leaning and supportive of many of the policies of the federal government that have fueled inflation. For instance, carbon taxes are a major cause of food inflation as well as inflation in general, and the Trudeau government plans to add yet another carbon tax in the name of the Clean Fuel Standard in July 2023. 

Why don’t the teachers’ unions, food banks and others petition the Trudeau government to lay off these taxes and consider some other tax reductions so that food prices can be more reasonable and lower-income families can improve their overall standard of living? That would make much more sense than asking for even more from beleaguered taxpayers and increasing dependence on government. 

Although Milton Friedman spoke about the impossibility of free lunches many decades ago, his statement is just as true today. Hopefully the Ontario government will show some common sense and resist this ridiculous suggestion from groups that always have their hand out for more money from others but contribute little themselves. 

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