The illustrative school lunch debacle

Thursday October 4, 2012

Audrey Pietrucha

Advocates of smaller and less centralized government have got to love Michelle Obama right now. The new federal nutrition guidelines being implemented nationwide as part of the first lady’s "Let’s Move" initiative are a wonderful real-life illustration of what happens when government involves itself where it should not. Mrs. Obama has graciously provided a perfect example of how seriously destructive the unintended consequences of well-intentioned but misguided actions can be.

Certainly, the objectives of the new guidelines are lofty and benevolent. Who can argue against such common sense ideas as encouraging children to consume more fruits and vegetables, eat more whole grains and reduce their sodium and trans fats intake? But somehow, it just isn’t all going according to plan. Portion sizes are smaller and children are complaining that they’re hungry; parents are calling schools to demand explanations for the higher meal costs; student athletes are dealing with fatigue during sports practice; students whose school are near stores are supplementing with junk food, and school districts are already worried about how these changes will effect participation and thus the meals programs’ fiscal viability.

That Americans young and old have gained weight is indisputable. Our nation’s obesity rate has been growing for years and with it the attendant problems of illness, disease and physical mobility issues. The causes are up for debate -- sedentary lifestyles, diets high in fats and sugar, junk food, fast food -- but the results are there for all to see.

So any initiative to get Americans to take initiative with their health seems like a good idea. The problem is in the implementation of those good ideas, which seldom translate well from theory into practice. Worse, dictates from the federal level often hamper or supplant much more effective solutions already being tried at state and local levels.

Brigid S. Scheffert, superintendent of Washington West Supervisory Union in the middle of northern Vermont, understands this reality because her district is currently living it. In a recent letter to media she outlined the harm this new policy is doing to WWSU and its students.

According to Sheffert, WWSU had what they considered an exemplary lunch program in place. The district employed talented food service directors and on-site chefs and offered students whole grain and largely organic food choices as well as all-you-can-eat fruits and vegetables. School salad bars, Sheffert said, could have competed with those of high-end restaurants.

But that has changed dramatically under the new guidelines. Sheffert reports salad bar participation is down 50 percent in the first month of school. Schools cannot enforce government requirements if students are self-serving so many choices have been eliminated. Proteins are tightly controlled under the new regulations so hard-cooked eggs, lean meats and various cheese are no longer available to salad bar customers. Likewise, some vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, pasta salads and breads are no longer offered because the amounts students take may exceed government limits.

The unintended consequences go on. Condiments can no longer be served in bulk or consumed at the discretion of the diners because calorie restrictions may be exceeded. Canning and freezing of local foods and sauces is no longer feasible due to time constraints and lack of scientific expertise in easily calculating nutrient contents. Using scratch recipes and locally produced food in general has become less of an option for the same reason. Schools are actually forced to use more prepackaged and processed foods since the nutrient information is already stated on the side of boxes.

Sheffert is also concerned with the impact these new guidelines will have on the district’s food services budget, which ran large deficits before the program was reinvented to include more local farmers and suppliers. She worries the $7,000 surplus the program ran in FY 2011 will soon turn into a deficit again.

Unintended consequences brought about by broad federal mandates that attempt to make squeeze everyone into the same mold encumber American businesses and individuals all the time. Since the victims of most of these invasive programs are both smaller in number and more isolated their plights they are more easily ignored. What happens in our schools, however, cannot be discounted because nearly every citizen is somehow impacted when problems arise. Whether you are a student, teacher, parent or taxpayer, you have a dog in this fight.

Fortunately, the fight is underway. Students have taken their lessons on civil disobedience to heart and started protests of their own, such as a YouTube video song parody, "We are Hungry," which has gone viral. Others are writing on blogs and Facebook pages and across the nation "Brown bag-ins" are being held as students organize to boycott the lunch programs at their school and bring their own lunches.

That, in my opinion, is the wisest option. Students and their parents need to take back control over the highly personal and individual act of eating, among many other actions. This kind of push-back, where individuals embrace their responsibilities and once again assert their right to live their lives as they see fit -- as long as they harm no one else -- is exactly what is needed. Government involvement far too often leads to long and depressing lists of harmful unintended consequences. If you don’t like what the federal government is doing to the school lunch program, just wait till it is running health care.

Audrey Pietrucha is a member of the executive board of Vermonters for Liberty. She can be reached at


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