Intentions were terrific behind this initiative led by First Lady Michelle Obama: a healthy, balanced lunch for every child, regardless of family income. The goals are to serve less salt and fat, and more fresh produce and whole grains.
The bill, the first school lunch overhaul in 15 years, thankfully corrected egregious food choices foisted on kids by past federal lunch programs, including mystery meats, highly-processed goops, and a dearth of fresh produce.
(Remember when President Reagan's 1982 budget classified such fake foods as catsup and pickle relish as vegetables?)
But as so often happens when government tries to regulate private behavior, the Obama administration went too far. Way too far. And kids across the nation are going hungry at school as a result. The bill overreaches by setting very restrictive lunch rules, including:
Caloric ceilings: 650 for elementary school, 700 for middle school, 850 for high school.
Fat content: Never more than 30% of calories from fat, or more than 10% from saturated fat (examples: cheese, butter, chocolate)
Produce: At least two fruits or vegetables
Beverage: Cow's milk (low-fat or fat-free) or a "nutritionally equivalent nondairy" alternative drink
Grains: 50% of grains (breads) served must be whole-grain
All for about $2.25 per child per lunch, which includes the costs of labor and supplies, leaving very little left to buy ingredients. (A Syracuse, New York school official told the New York Times that "After labor costs, ... she is left with 15 cents per lunch to buy ingredients, repair equipment and equip cafeterias. 'The federal government knows this is not enough to pay for the food we make,' she said.")
As a result, protein and carbohydrate portions have been reduced in already-meager school lunches, breads are rarely offered, and produce has increased to dominate the 2012 lunch tray.
Hungry howls can be heard from coast-to-coast, from students, teachers, and even school district officials. Commented Mitchell, South Dakota School Superintendent Joe Graves:
"The program is creating real problems. It isn’t permitting enough calories for our high school students, especially for those students who spend a long day at school participating in sports or other activities. It’s too draconian an approach, its counterproductive...
The local press added, "... hungry kids are increasingly choosing to brown bag their lunches, to buy them elsewhere or binge on junk food to get their desired extra calories. Plate waste is growing as kids reject stuff they don’t like. 'The rejected food can’t be given to someone else,' Graves said, 'so it must be thrown out.'"The New York Times reports:
"Students organized lunch strikes in a suburb of Pittsburgh, where in late August the hashtag “brownbagginit” was trending on Twitter, and outside Milwaukee, where the Mukwonago High School principal, Shawn McNulty, said participation in the lunch program had fallen 70 percent...
"In New Jersey, more than 1,200 people have joined a Facebook group that urges Parsippany Hills High School students to boycott the school lunches. Despite the enticement of a Chinese-themed lunch a week ago Friday, the first day of the strike, only a few students bought anything from the cafeteria, according to the strike organizers."And in Sharon Springs, Kansas, Wallace High School students and two teachers teamed to produce this witty YouTube parody, "We Are the Hungry," which has garnered nearly a million views:
The Obama administration's new school-lunch guidelines are a well-intentioned step forward, but too restrictive, too inflexible. Too extreme. And too much, too soon, to successfully wean American kids off fast food habits, and to inspire love of healthier fare. Force is not the way to lead kids, or anyone, away from fake foods.
Perhaps worst of all, kids from low-income families can least afford to augment the often unsatisfying lunches that may be their heartiest meal of the day. Sometimes their only meal...
Further, few (if any) variations are allowed in school lunches for:
- Sensitivities and allergies
- Family traditions and preferences
- Height, weight, or metabolism
- Individual taste
Calorie ceilings should be raised or entirely ended for school lunches now served under the aegis of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Kids of all ages should be offered a reasonable range of healthier food choices rather than be forced to down a narrowly-proscribed diet set by the federal government.
Children should not be going hungry because of school lunches. And the federal government has no business overriding parents and local school districts by telling kids what to eat.