The illustrative school lunch debacle

by Audrey Pietrucha

Advocates of smaller and less centralized government have got to love Michelle Obama right now. The new federal nutrition guidelines being implemented nationwide as part of the first lady’s “Let’s Move” initiative are a wonderful real-life illustration of what happens when government involves itself where it should not. Mrs. Obama has graciously provided a perfect example of how seriously destructive the unintended consequences of well-intentioned but misguided actions can be.

Certainly the objectives of the new guidelines are lofty and benevolent. Who can argue against such common sense ideas as encouraging children to consume more fruits and vegetables, eat more whole grains and reduce their sodium and trans-fats intake? But somehow, it just isn’t all going according to plan. Portion sizes are smaller and children are complaining that they’re hungry; parents are calling schools to demand explanations for the higher meal costs; student athletes are dealing with fatigue during sports practice; students whose school are near stores are supplementing with junk food, and school districts are already worried about how these changes will effect participation and thus the meals programs’ fiscal viability.

That Americans young and old have gained weight is indisputable. Our nation’s obesity rate has been growing for years and with it the attendant problems of illness, disease and physical mobility issues. The causes are up for debate – sedentary lifestyles, diets high in fats and sugar, junk food, fast food – but the results are there for all to see.

So any initiative to get Americans to take initiative with their health seems like a good idea. The problem is in the implementation of those good ideas, which seldom translate well from theory into practice. Worse, dictates from the federal level often hamper or supplant much more effective solutions already being tried at state and local levels.

Brigid S. Scheffert, superintendent of Washington West Supervisory Union in the middle of northern Vermont, understands this reality because her district is currently living it. In a recent letter to media she outlined the harm this new policy is doing to WWSU and its students.

According to Sheffert, WWSU had what they considered an exemplary lunch program in place. The district employed talented food service directors and on-site chefs and offered students whole grain and largely organic food choices as well as all-you-can-eat fruits and vegetables. School salad bars, Sheffert said, could have competed with those of high-end restaurants.

But that has changed dramatically under the new guidelines. Sheffert reports salad bar participation is down fifty-percent in the first month of school. Schools cannot enforce government requirements if students are self-serving so many choices have been eliminated. Proteins are tightly controlled under the new regulations so hard-cooked eggs, lean meats and various cheese are no longer available to salad bar customers. Likewise some vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, pasta salads and breads are no longer offered because the amounts students take may exceed government limits.

The unintended consequences go on. Condiments can no longer be served in bulk or consumed at the discretion of the diners because calorie restrictions may be exceeded. Canning and freezing of local foods and sauces is no longer feasible due to time constraints and lack of scientific expertise in easily calculating nutrient contents. Using scratch recipes and locally produced food in general has become less of an option for the same reason. Schools are actually forced to use more prepackaged and processed foods since the nutrient information is already stated on the side of boxes.

Sheffert is also concerned with the impact these new guidelines will have on the district’s food services budget, which ran large deficits before the program was reinvented to include more local farmers and suppliers. She worries the $7,000 surplus the program ran in FY 2011 will soon turn into a deficit again.

Unintended consequences brought about by broad federal mandates that attempt to make squeeze everyone into the same mold encumber American businesses and individuals all the time. Since the victims of most of these invasive programs are both smaller in number and more isolated their plights they are more easily ignored. What happens in our schools, however, cannot be discounted because nearly every citizen is somehow impacted when problems arise. Whether you are a student, teacher, parent or taxpayer, you have a dog in this fight.

Fortunately, the fight is underway. Students have taken their lessons on civil disobedience to heart and started protests of their own, such as a YouTube video song parody, “We are Hungry,” which has gone viral. Others are writing on blogs and Facebook pages and across the nation “Brown bag-ins” are being held as students organize to boycott the lunch programs at their school and bring their own lunches.

That, in my opinion, is the wisest option. Students and their parents need to take back control over the highly personal and individual act of eating, among many other actions. This kind of push-back, where individuals embrace their responsibilities and once again assert their right to live their lives as they see fit – as long as they harm no one else – is exactly what is needed. Government involvement far too often leads to long and depressing lists of harmful unintended consequences. If you don’t like what the federal government is doing to the school lunch program, just wait till it is running health care.

Audrey Pietrucha is a member of the executive board of Vermonters for Liberty. She can be reached at vermontliberty@gmail.com.

6 thoughts on “The illustrative school lunch debacle

  1. Well, if the objective is to reduce obesity, this school lunch debacle in working – better than expected! Now, if the objective is to get kids to eat healthier, it’s a debacle. My theory is that Michelle Obama lucked out and has kids who have taste buds that flat out don’t work. Ever try to get a kid (whose taste buds work) to eat broccoli?

    Wait until Thanksgiving school meal and the 1 ounce piece of turkey breast. If anyone can develop a method of cooking turkey breast to be edibly moist instead of dry as outer space, they deserve the Nobel Prize in chemistry.

  2. Mandatory “healthy” school lunches, no more 32 or 64 oz. sodas in the Big Apple, brown bag lunches in SC confiscated from kindergarteners, PTA bake sales banned; the list goes on. When is all this idiocy going to stop?
    My wife informs me of a recent school board policy passed in our own local school district (to be implemented immediately) of banning all home prepared foods of any kind (baked goods, cookies, cupcakes, sandwiches, etc.) in the interest of protecting any student with allergies from inadvertantly being exposed to anything that might cause a food allergy reaction. Store-bought junkfood such as donuts, Twinkies, cupcakes, etc. perfectly acceptable though, as long as they have the proper warning labels.
    Imagine; kids in this country have been bringing in home prepared goodies from their Mom’s and Grandmom’s kitchens to share with their friends for over 200 years now with few (if any) casualties or serious consequences. And now, suddenly, we’re concerned that some kid might be exposed to a peanut butter sandwich or a cookie that may have spent the night on a covered plate in the fridge next to the 1/2 tunafish grinder leftover from supper. Give me a break! Where do these idiots come from!

    “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
    – C. S. Lewis

  3. The bag lunch is exactly what I was thinking of — we could use it for a revolt against the school lunch programs — but you are both correct, that is also inspected and rationed. A few months ago a little girl in North Carolina had her bag lunch taken away because the school lunch “monitor” said it wasn’t nutritious. It was a turkey-cheese sandwich, a juice box and something else, but they took it away because there were no vegetables. In their infinite wisdom, they made the child (pre-school or kindergarten, I think) eat chicken nuggets instead. Yup. I remember when I was sending my daughter to a “summer adventure camp” almost 20 years ago, there were requirements for the lunches. I distinctly remember that peanut butter sandwiches had to contain 1/4 c. of peanut butter. For a little kid! Even I can’t eat that much on a sandwich! I remember being paranoid when I packed her lunch, and that made me mad! Every kid I know in school is complaining about these lunches, they’re all saying they’re hungry — and I can see why. Let’s see more articles like this across the country. Good job, Audrey!

  4. As the lunch program was established to feed those students whose families could not afford to provide lunch for them, if a family can provide a nutritious bag lunch they should. In my own consumption of school lunch there were never organic or local choices. Dinner rolls were scratch made in my elementary school, but otherwise every thing was super processed and canned food or iceberg lettuce with shredded carrot for salad. I’ve never been in a public school where the food was gourmet, even in college it was mediocre.

  5. You are not exaggerating the possibilty of having bag lunches judged and eventually confiscated, Peter. When my son was in first grade the school had the teachers begin rating their snacks on a 1-3 scale. He was furious when he got low score for his poptart, which his dad had just read was a good, high-energy snack for cyclists (and presumably little boys). O was just talking to a friend who said he son, an eighth grader who weighs all of 80 pounds, got the evil eye and a negative comment when a teacher saw a snack-sized candy bar packed in his lunch, among many other things. When did we allow others to think they had the right to tell us how to live?

  6. There are several issues here: 1) Audrey is such a fantastic word smith. 2) her topic is appropriate for today’s climate. And 3) it points out how insane good intentions can be. Solution: bag lunches. But then, of course they would be searched and much of what the parents wanted their children to eat would likely be confiscated. I think I’ll go back and read “Atlas Shrugged” for the fourth time. – p

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