Over on NRO, Iain Murray takes aim at the school lunch program and the bureaucrats who believe “improving” the quality of the food served in our nation’s schools will solve America’s so-called childhood obesity problem.  

Take, for instance, Jamie’s School Dinners, a project of British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. Disgusted at the standard of food served in British schools, in 2004-2005 he started a project to bring healthier school lunches to the students. After a well-publicized TV series and no end of hectoring of children, lunch ladies, and politicians, the British government earmarked almost $1 billion in public funds to improve the standard of school lunches, based on Oliver’s advice. 

It failed. Badly. Before Naked Chef Jamie’s intervention, about 45 percent of students took school lunches. Five years later, after the government had spent vast amounts of money following Oliver’s ideas about what makes a good school meal, that figure had slumped to 39 percent. Oliver might have made more nutritious meals, but they were favored by well-educated families, not the working-class families he had crusaded to save; they simply opted out of the program. 

This is where I disagree with Murray.  I consider a drop in participation in the school lunch program a victory, not a failure.  If we want kids to eat better, best not to send them to school with a couple of dollars in their pocket. Rather, parents should be packing their lunch at home. 

Now, I understand Murray’s point; It isn’t that these kids opted out of the school lunch program in order to bring in a June Cleaver-packed healthy meal from. Instead, many of these kids choose to eat a bag of chips or forgo lunch entirely. But some of them surely have started to pack a lunch.  That’s a good thing. 

Murray then examines Jamie Oliver’s efforts here in the United States: 

Oliver brought his busy-body philosophy to Huntington, W. Va. in 2009-2010, with similar results. As the leftist website AlterNet reported, Oliver’s meals exceeded the county’s fat-content and calories guidelines and were much more expensive: 

The reality behind Food Revolution is that after the first two months of the new meals, children were overwhelmingly unhappy with the food, milk consumption plummeted and many students dropped out of the school lunch program, which one school official called “staggering.” 

The AlterNet article is fascinating and it highlights just how hushed the failure of golden boy Oliver’s efforts were in the U.S. In fact, undeterred by his failure in West Virginia, Oliver headed to Los Angeles (one wonders about that decision; is Jamie looking for a Hollywood career now too?) to harangue the LA County School District.  They were not amused and banned him from filming in the school; though interestingly he refused when they agreed to let him inside the school but without the cameras.  That reveals his real motivations, I think. 

But, I’ve always had a soft spot for Jamie and I sympathized with how frustrating it must be to design a healthy meal for kids in schools while trying to adhere to the USDA’s ridiculous nutrition guidelines-rules that are confusing and overly prescriptive and that ultimately lead to unhealthy food being served to kids.  I wrote about one of Jamie’s run-ins with a school official in an article for National Affairs:

An excellent example of this confusing set of regulations played out in real time on the ABC series Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution – a reality show documenting British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s exasperating attempts to improve the meals that kids were being served in one Huntington, West Virginia, public school. Just before serving the healthy meal he had prepared – consisting of a vegetable pasta dish, baked chicken, and a fruit cup – the school administrator admonished Oliver for not having the required 1¼ cups of fruits and vegetables the federal government required. She then told the camera ominously, “It’s not a reimbursable meal.” In other words, the school wouldn’t receive the coveted per-meal subsidy unless the lunch followed federal guidelines. As a result, french fries were added to the tray to bring it back into compliance. A dumbfounded Oliver was then told that the USDA considers french fries a vegetable.

This episode – and the countless others that surely play out across the country away from reality-TV cameras – suggest that less government meddling, and fewer government minders, would probably yield healthier meals for schoolchildren. Yet it is precisely more government involvement, and an increase in the number of children eating government-provided school lunches, that the people who claim to be most concerned about school lunches want.