Barbecued chicken patty
Whole grain roll
Locally grown carrots
1 percent milk
Fried chicken patty
Canned green beans
Package of snack cakes (from vending machine)
So reports the New York Times, with information from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a good news story given the passage of the child nutrition bill in the House of Representatives last week.
And who wouldn’t agree that school lunches today are something of an embarrassment and in need of an update? (For an unusual take on the problem, one Chicago teacher is eating school lunches for a year and blogging anonymously on her meals, complete with pictures.)
Add in the fact that millions of kids’ meals are federally sponsored with the school lunch program – meaning that the unhealthy food served often receives a double subsidy (to agribusiness and then to schools). In other words, taxpayers are paying and paying again to bring up a new generation of diabetics.
And so, with the passage of the bill authorizing the school lunch program last week through the House (and passage before it in the Senate back in August), many are breathing a collective, nonpartisan sigh of relief. Better food is on the way.
It’s an important cause. But is the new legislation a meaningful and lasting step in that direction?
Start with the fact that there were nutritional standards in the first place. Set 30 years ago, today’s schools are actually governed by strict regulations.
Yes, that’s right – there really are strict regulations in place. And, from a distance, they seem reasonable enough, banning the sale of “foods of minimal nutritional value.”
Notice that sodas, candy bars, salty snacks, pizza and French fries are all meeting that minimal-nutrition standard.
The Carter Administration set the standards to ensure that foods sold in schools had at least 5% of an essential nutrient, like protein or calcium. What about fat or sodium or high calories? Current standards do nothing to limit them. And, of course, there are loopholes. The end result? A donut can be sold in your daughter’s high school cafeteria, but not a lollipop. Breath-mint? No. But cookies are okay.
In fact, the legislation enabling the school lunch program is renewed by Congress every five years, meaning that there is ongoing Congressional oversight.
Liberal groups emphasize that this process has been heavily influenced by lobbyists fighting for the billions of dollars at stake in the setting of nutritional standards. (Check out this clever video). But then, ironically, they collectively champion a dubious idea: heavier regulations from Washington.
And the child nutrition bill is a heavy hand if there ever was one.
Not only will the Agriculture Department be empowered to strengthen and update regulations around school lunches, it will have oversight over much of everything food related in schools. Even bake sales.
“Don’t touch my brownies!” begins an AP story on the subject. The article is unbiased and, despite the fun opening, it does note that bake sales are only subject to regulations if they are frequent.
Still, there is something absurd about the Agriculture Department weighing in on fundraising and brownies. Or school lunch programs, for that matter. This is a case of the fox watching the hen house – the people busy subsidizing corn production and talking up the consumption of cheese, will now be charged with better regulating the school lunch programs they’ve been negligently regulating for 3 decades.
What’s a better approach? Several states have released voluntary, common-sense guidelines for school lunches, and then published the names of schools that have signed on and not signed on. That approach empowers parents – and that makes more long-term sense than the Washington-empowerment seen in the child nutrition bill.
Washington regulations and oversight, after all, seem to offer much in way of lobbying, rules, and red tape, and little in way of true accountability. The better approach is – to steal a line from the organic crowd – to go local.