Rethink school lunches

First lady's program is unappetizing to students and school systems

Michelle Obama wants the nation’s public school kids to eat healthier.

The kids want to eat what tastes good.

The schools want to stop spending so much on lunches that wind up in the cafeteria trash can.

Can they all get what they want? We think so, but it will require Washington to do some homework over the summer. The government needs to drop the heavy-handed, one-size-fits-all approach imposed on school systems through the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

The first lady’s well-intentioned changes to the National School Lunch Program have done largely what early critics predicted they would do: increase costs, create administrative hassles and waste food.

Though we applaud her efforts to reduce kids’ sugar, sodium and fat intake, schools shouldn’t have to go through gymnast-like contortions to do it.

A recent General Accounting Office report shows two-thirds of states surveyed said implementation during the 2012-13 school year was a “very great challenge” or an “extreme challenge.”

The problem, as evidenced by the GAO probe, is the new standards are inflexible and overly confining, and impose very specific quotas on the type and amount of food served.

Just look at the vegetable rules, which require cafeterias to feature five “vegetable subgroups” across “dark green, red/orange, beans/peas (legumes), starchy and ‘other’ vegetables.”

And that’s just a snippet of the federal mandate’s 1,800 pages of “guidance.”

Leave it to Washington to complicate something as simple as school lunch.

Some schools have decided to opt out of the $12 billion federally-subsidized program entirely. Enrollment has dropped for the first time in 30 years, with about 1.2 million students, or 3.7 percent, dropping out of the program since the new standards went into force.

Not all of the rejection can be attributed to menu changes, though media nationwide have reported student boycotts, lunch strikes and garbage cans full of uneaten fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

Some schools say they are having trouble sourcing products that meet the new requirements. Others have made dubious menu changes, such as adding pudding and potato chips to conform to minimum calorie requirements, or removing popular peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to avoid exceeding quotas for grains.

Then there are cultural and regional differences that bureaucrats failed to consider, such as Southern children wanting their chicken fried, and Southwestern children not wanting to switch from the white-flour tortillas they grew up with to whole-wheat ones.

Such is the case when central planning’s cuisine committee decides it knows best.

Yes, kids have been scraping uneaten food from their trays long before the new standards took effect. But at least food waste wasn’t compounded by increased costs and regulatory hassles.

The cafeteria quandary should serve as a cautionary tale for anyone wanting the federal government to play a more active role in local schools. Do you want these people anywhere near the classroom?

Just wait until September, when rules take effect on food served outside the cafeteria, such as vending machines and bake sales.

The first lady, upset that her best-laid plans have turned into a food fiasco, recently lashed out at a Republican measure that would allow beleaguered schools running a meal-program deficit some relief in the form of a temporary exemption.

She assailed the exemption as “a bill to override science” in her recent New York Times op-ed piece, “The Campaign for Junk Food.”

“This is unacceptable,” she said at the White House gathering of school nutritionists. “It’s unacceptable to me not just as first lady, but also as a mother.”

We agree with her goals, but not her rhetoric. It might be
constructive to dial it down.

First, Republicans are not questioning the “science” behind the rules, that eating vegetables are good for you and consuming too many calories can lead to obesity and diabetes. We think they get it.

Second, the first lady should remember it was bipartisan support for her cause that helped the legislation pass in 2010. Finally, the GOP has not called for a repeal of the rules – even though it easily could.

We might also suggest the first lady turn down the volume on the “as a mother” sanctimony. Her children, as private-school students, don’t have to dine on the federally mandated menu served to 31 million American children. And any exemption approved when the law is reauthorized next year would have no impact on them.

Instead of dropping incendiaries on conservatives, the White House might want to explore ways to make the menus more flexible without compromising nutrition.

It’s as if there’s no middle ground on this issue. Can’t adjustments be made so children in New Mexico get their flour tortillas and kids in Tennessee get their flaky biscuits? And does the PB&J have to be banned outright?

“Healthy” and “tasty” are not mutually exclusive terms.

Something else that obviously is lacking in the national dialogue is the most important component: parents. After all, who is more responsible for the nourishment of a child – the
parents or the state?

If more of Washington’s policies promoted self-reliance and responsibility instead of nanny statism, we might not be so concerned about counting calories in school cafeterias.

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