September 16, 2014

September 16, 2014 | Commentary on Education, Regulation

Parents, not bureaucrats, should decide what kids eat

The primary focus of the federal school meal programs should be meeting students’ needs. But for that to happen, there must be recognition that parents — not the first lady or Congress — know what’s best for their children.

Unfortunately, the school meal standards that started to go into effect two years ago under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 ignore parents in favor of a federal government that thinks it knows everything.

Those who dare to speak against these standards have quickly felt the wrath of Michelle Obama and her minions in the administration.

It’s not just policy-makers who have felt the ire of the first lady. The School Nutrition Association, representing more than 55,000 school nutrition experts, sent a letter to the first lady expressing “disappointment regarding your July 22nd comments disparaging school nutrition professionals.”

The new meal standards try to micromanage every aspect of what’s served to children, including placing severe restrictions on calories, nutritional content and portion sizes. Some schools have left the program, willing to sacrifice its massive subsidies in exchange for freedom from its excessive restrictions and costs.

The assumption underlying these new standards is that the federal government must control nutritional policy in the schools because parents can’t be trusted to teach their children how to make dietary choices that meet their unique needs.

Proponents claim that parents need help because they can’t ensure their kids are eating properly at school. Of course, parents can’t know every single thing that their children eat at school, but this doesn’t mean parents haven’t provided their children with the necessary knowledge to make informed choices. Even assuming that schools need to limit food choices, this doesn’t justify federal control.

Parents concerned about the food provided to their children at school are much better off going to local officials to address these issues. They will generally get the chance to meet with the officials and have their voices heard.

Parents aren’t going to get very far trying to convince D.C. bureaucrats about their specific concerns. Local officials who would like to help have their hands tied with these new standards because they don’t have the necessary flexibility to address many concerns.

If the new standards provided greater flexibility to states and local authorities, it would help officials better meet the needs of their students and empower parents by giving them a greater say in the food provided through meal programs.

The federal standards have encountered a lot of criticism from nutrition officials as well as students. The independent Government Accountability Office surveyed state nutrition officials and found that local school food authorities had a slew of real-world concerns about the lunch standards, ranging from “increased plate waste” — bureaucrat speak for uneaten food — to the costs of meeting the new federal dietary code.

The School Nutrition Association has echoed these concerns. The National School Board Association cautioned, “School boards cannot ignore the higher costs and operational issues created by the rigid mandates of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.” The mandates are so excessive that some schools have reportedly raided their teaching budgets to cover the extra costs.

Worse, students are disgusted by the food provided to them. According to the GAO report, students in one district held a three-week boycott against school lunches. Students are posting their anger over the program using Twitter at “#ThanksMichelle.”

The first lady and other proponents of the standards have turned a deaf ear to the complaints. They’ve even opposed giving some financially struggling schools a one-year reprieve from complying with the standards. Nothing, it seems, not even the mounting evidence of the program’s failure, will be allowed to slow its implementation.

And that’s a shame. Washington always hungers for power, but these federal meal standards aren’t fit for public consumption. They need to be scrapped.

 - Daren Bakst is a research fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Daren Bakst Research Fellow in Agricultural Policy
Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies

Originally distributed by McClatchy-Tribune News Service