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States and school systems around the country have been reformatting cafeteria menus, partly pushed by Michelle Obama’s 2010 “Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act,” which essentially has taxpayers triple-paying for the food schools serve under wild and conflicting nutrition regulations, and partly pushed by a desire to be politically correct. This has led to some outrageous incidents, including the recent North Carolina incident where a teacher forced a child to swap her homemade lunch for the school’s chicken nuggets, a Michigan state child obesity registry and tracking system, and now a new set of rules in Massachusetts that forbid school vending machines, bake sales, door-to-door candy fundraisers, and snacks at after-school events and parties.
The state’s justification is “an obesity epidemic.” And, to be fair, lots of American kids are fat–not pudgy, fat. But does this justify blanketing schools with often conflicting and nonsensical food requirements? Massachusetts State Sen. Susan Fargo thinks so.
“If we didn’t have so many kids that were obese, we could have let things go,” she said. “But this is a major public health problem and these kids deserve a chance at a good, long, healthy life.”
Ah, yes, government. Giver of good, long, healthy lives!
These regulation-happy state officials don’t seem to understand the law of unintended consequences, and this action has several. The problem for them is that some of the unintended consequences pit government regulation against government regulation, with the not-unlikely possibility the public begins to notice the Kafka-esque absurdity of it all.
In first place, public schools depend on private fundraising to fill in many holes in their budgets (even though Massachusetts spends $15,000 per pupil each year, on average; a figure most private schools can only dream of nabbing) such as for band trips, sports equipment, events like prom, and in some cases even new textbooks and classroom supplies. As Massachusetts mom Maura Dawley says, “The goal is to raise money. You’re not going to get that selling apples and bananas.” How will moms like her feel when their kids can’t raise the money to have extra-school activities parents are willing to pay extra to support?
Second, government food programs may have actually contributed to the obesity epidemic school officials are now trying to target. As Mark Bittman pointed out in the New York Times, hunger and obesity are two sides of a coin. Hungry people are much more likely to become obese because they overeat when they suddenly have a stable food supply.
“Of the two edges of the sword of America’s malnutrition — hunger and obesity — the latter is by far the more prevalent and deadly,” Bittman writes. “In New York City perhaps 2 percent of children have “very low food security,” which might mean vitamin deficiencies, a day without food, a loss of weight, a month of being hungry. Meanwhile, 40 percent of New York’s public school students are overweight or obese…”
Bittman criticizes a New York program that gives kids the option of two breakfasts–one in the cafeteria, one on their desks–in an effort to end the stigma of receiving “government cheese.” It can also be fairly noted that kids can also come from homes that have food (whether provided by a parent or another government program) and also eligible be to eat again, taxpayer-paid, when they get to school. More double-eating.
Third is the complete impossibility of officials being able to decide, from their thousand-mile-away government thrones, exactly what school lunch configurations will work for every one of America’s 55 million K-12 students. Hm, perhaps this is why parents used to make their kids’ school lunches. What a novel idea!
Image by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.