Complaining about school lunches is a time-honored tradition. From Adam Sandler’s ode to the lunch lady to ponderings about the odd rectangular slices of cafeteria pizza from my youth, lunchroom food has been a source of both grumbling and laughter. During the Obama Administration, the problem got worse, however.
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 codified into law standards that were championed by First Lady Michelle Obama. The law set new standards for school lunches as well as vending machines that mandated higher nutrition as well as smaller portion sizes. The resulting bland, half-empty trays led my son to complain, “The food at school is bad and there isn’t enough of it.”
One area where the Trump Administration has been reliable is in rolling back onerous Obama era bureaucratic rulemaking. Easing federal oversight of local school lunches is no exception. Last year, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced an interim rule that relaxed the Obama guidelines. Now Perdue has unveiled the new permanent rules.
The Obama rules are a good example of well-intentioned federal rulemaking run amok. No one is against healthy food for students, but the federal one-size-fits-all approach can cause as many problems as it resolves. In a case of the Law of Unintended Consequences, school lunches became more nutritious, but they also wasted food because kids weren’t eating them. The federal guidelines didn’t recognize regional and cultural differences across the country. The law’s requirement for whole grains was difficult to meet while cooking foods such as pasta, tortillas, biscuits, and grits in a way that was palatable to children. Likewise, the Obama law permitted only nonfat flavored milk or 1 percent white milk and required every student to buy at least one serving of a fruit or vegetable “even if they toss the produce into the garbage” noted the New Haven Register at the time.
When I ate lunch at school with my children, I would see many parents bringing outside pizzas, sub sandwiches or chicken nuggets to their children. My kids and many other packed lunches from home that were not subject to the requirements of the federal nanny state. When I purchased school food and ate it with my kids, I found it very bland and unexciting. The staff told me that their cooking options were very limited because the federal mandate which also required reductions in sodium and other ingredients.
Now some sanity and local control are being restored to school lunches. Secretary Perdue said in a statement, “If kids are not eating what is being served, they are not benefiting, and food is being wasted.”
Under the new rules, only half of the grains served must be whole grain, allowing schools to use more appetizing flours when necessary. Students will also be able to drink low-fat chocolate milk instead of the fat-free milk that the government had required.
The fundamental problem with the situation is the fallacy that only the federal government can ensure that schoolchildren get healthy lunches. Contrary to the belief of some Americans, it isn’t necessary for the feds to micromanage what every child in America eats for lunch. State and local education and nutrition officials also have working brains and the best interests of the children at heart. School cafeterias were not dishing out poison to schoolchildren before Michelle Obama intervened.
The world won’t end with the Trump Administration’s new school lunch guidelines. Schoolchildren won’t starve and they won’t suddenly become morbidly obese. There is the chance that they might enjoy their lunch more, get a full belly and go back to class satiated and ready to learn, rather than still hungry because most of their lunch went straight from the tray to the trash can.