The Wrong Recipe for Fixing School Lunches

December 6th, 2010 at 2:32 pm | 9 Comments |

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In

Barbecued chicken patty

Whole grain roll

Locally grown carrots

1 percent milk

Sliced apples


Out

Fried chicken patty

White roll

Canned green beans

Whole milk

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.

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9 Comments so far ↓

  • Michigan Outsider

    The simplest approach to ensuring that your children eat reasonably healthy lunches is to make them yourself most days of the week. That way, the occasional school lunch — no matter what’s in it — would not do your child much harm.

  • Non-Contributor

    “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.”

    You need to get out more. You think that parents that have a choice of schools need lunch programs? I know this sounds harsh but what you wrote “sounds awful white of you”.

  • JeninCT

    Non-contributor, while I may disagree with your choice of words, I agree with the sentiment. Going local only works if the locals are willing and able to take a stand for their kids. However, I agree that the federal government doesn’t always produce legislation that makes sense, and this child nutrition bill is no exception.

  • lessadoabouteverything

    I hate to say it but the United States needs a radical overhaul of our diet, far more in line with a traditonal Asian diet. The way to do it is through kids. And this diet need not be boring or bland, some of the best cuisine is Oriental. You don’t see many fat Japanese, Korean, or Chinese school children.

    Michigan outsider, a properly prepared school lunch is vastly preferable to some boxed lunch of a sandwich and crackers. Breakfast and lunch should be the principal meals of the day, dinner should be something light. None of my kids are overweight, not by a pound because I don’t have crap at home.

  • jakester

    I say send the little brats out to forage for their food, in that way they will lose weight just trying to find lunch.

  • Madeline

    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’s kind of funny, because Pennsylvania is one of the states that released voluntary guidelines for school lunches, prompting Sarah Palin to visit a school bearing cookies and lamenting the “nanny state”.

  • RLHotchkiss

    Michigan Outsider:

    The problem with your comment is that many children who receive subsidized student lunches receive the vast majority of their calories from stunded lunches and breakfasts. The health problems these students develop as a result of poor nutrition have significant effect on their readiness to enter the armed forces.

    This is one of the reasons why there are few recruits from low income backgrounds. This both degrades our military readiness and cost the government more in signup and retention bonuses of those who can serve.

    The poor have much less ability to mitigate the effects of poor government services than the middle class. Providing the poor bad services is often more expensive than providing them good services. And, when the cost for good services and bad services are similar providing good services can provide tremendous savings.

  • nhthinker

    Taxpayer dollar should go for healthy food.
    Frozen carrots and green beans are usually less expensive to buy and prepare than locally grown carrots.

    Kids got fat as schools offered unhealthy choices- (primarily as a means of making money from a captive and impressionable clientele.)

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