Most recently, George Ervin “Sonny” Perdue III, the newly appointed Secretary of Agriculture, announced that the Department would provide greater flexibility in the nutrition requirements for the nation’s school lunch program. This flexibility will restore local control of guidelines on whole grains, sodium, and milk which had been nationalized by the “Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act” of 2010.
Latest statistics (2014) from the Department of Agriculture shows that the federally subsidized school lunch program serves over 30 million children at a cost of $13 billion a year.
In brief, The “National School Lunch Act” was originally passed in 1946 and it had a two-fold intent; 1. To provide low-cost or free school lunch meals to low income students and 2. To boost food prices by using farm surpluses. Since that time it’s been greatly expanded to include mid-day snacks and breakfasts.
In 2010 and with good intent, the Department of Agriculture with First Lady Michelle Obama identified a reformed school initiative designed to bring healthier and more nutritional foods to America’s public schools. The program, “The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act” was passed by Congress with the purpose of addressing childhood obesity while improving nutrition of school meals. The program’s goal is to improve the nutritional quality of all food in schools by providing the Department of Agriculture with the authority to set nutritional standards for all food sold in schools, including vending machines.
As early as September 2012, students, administrators, and parents took issue with the program. As reported by the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel, 70% of students at Mukonago High School protested the 850 calorie cap for their school lunch. According to the senior class president, “[The Lunches are] worse tasting, smaller sized, and higher priced”. The school’s food service supervisor and registered dietitian said that weight and poor nutrition are serious problems “but limiting calories in school lunch is not going to help the overweight kid. What happens at home is a major piece of that puzzle.”
Similar complaints were found across the county. Children throw away much of the nutritious food that they are served. Boston Public Schools reported that, “on average, students discarded roughly 19 percent of their entrées, 47 percent of their fruit, 25 percent of their milk, and 73 percent of their vegetables.” “It was estimated that $432,349.05 worth of food is wasted annually at lunch by students in Grades 6-8 in Boston Public Schools.”
This writer can personally attest to primary school students refusing to eat at all rather than eat some of the meals served. Peanut butter and jelly is served on brown whole grain bread which many students refuse to eat. The same holds true for pizza which is made from brown whole grain dough.
As per “The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act”, the lunch meal must conform to the chart below which demands that each student must take 3 out of the five meal components in order for the school to be reimbursed for the meal. The chart directs the school not to allow a child to pass up a fruit or vegetable. If the child passes up these choices, the child will not be able to select a meal. So students are served according to the demands of the USDA rules; even though much of this food is never eaten by the student and is thrown away yet, the school is able to collect reimbursement for a meal that went from tray to trash!
Unappetizing and unfamiliar food led to the biggest problem school officials faced: food waste.
A 2014 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report cites that 1,086,000 stopped buying school lunches after program participation increased steadily for nearly a decade and 321 school districts left the program citing the new standards as a factor.
“Students may take the food components they are required to as part of the school lunch but then choose not to eat them,” the GAO said. As a result, 48 out of 50 states cited waste as a challenge.
According to Daren Bakst, a research fellow in agricultural policy at The Heritage Foundation:
This study simply supports what school nutrition officials have been saying. There’s major food waste. It’s difficult to conclude that a law called the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act is a success when the kids are hungry—you can’t be healthy if you are hungry all the time. Getting the kids to eat should first and foremost be the primary concern.
However, the entire debate surrounding the new school nutrition standards often misses a fundamental question. Do we need federal bureaucrats and Michelle Obama to dictate how kids should eat through this program, or should parents, possibly along with local governments, make decisions regarding nutrition? Specifically, it is a question of whether we respect federal bureaucrats and their one-size-fits-all approach more than parents who know the best interests of their children.