President Obama might deserve the cold shoulder from his wife for supporting the $1.1 trillion budget bill because it contains (among other things) a release from rules for school lunches that are part of the first lady's effort to put as many kids as possible on a federal diet. Every other parent in America can enjoy a tiny bit of good news, however.
According to The Washington Post, the bill allows schools to get out from under USDA mandates for whole grains, “if the school can demonstrate a hardship,” and it also relaxes limits on salt until they are “supported by additional scientific studies.”
The hardship of the new school lunch menus is amply documented, from school districts screaming about lost revenue and wasted food (which is why the GOP took up this cause) to students taking to Twitter with the hashtag #thanksMichelleObama and posting pictures of their most hated lunches. But the whole grain mandates of the feds' lunch menus aren't the only hardship.
For some schools the problem is implementation. Indeed, as reported in The Wall Street Journal, after the Santa Clarita Valley school system in California lost $250,000 in cafeteria sales last year because of kids rejecting Michelle's meals — part of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids law — they hired a Cordon Bleu-trained chef to gussy up the required low-fat, low-sodium offerings.
Chef Brittany Young's big advice has been to employ “restaurant-style techniques” like having kitchen staff “wipe down serving bowls so chow mein noodles don't hang over the side.” The fact that most of the food isn't prepared on site should explain hiring a trained cook, though. Unfortunately, cooking the food on site doesn't necessarily seem to be part of the plan.
More appealing dishes might be helpful for some students who rely on the breakfast and lunch offerings at school. But that's a minority of kids. The rest of America's public school students have to suffer through or opt out by bringing food from home, right? Well, not so fast, says new medical research published in JAMA Pediatrics, which purports to show how much “healthier” school food is than homemade.
According to researchers Michelle Caruso and Karen Cullen, since home-packed lunches do not conform to rigorous government standards, they aren't as healthful as the food from the school cafeteria. Lunches from home tend to have more salt and sugar and fewer vegetables and whole grains, they argue.
Of course, the authors accept the premise that a low-fat, lower-sodium diet is the only way to eat well and they have no idea whether students might consume more vegetables at other meals besides lunch. But no matter, now there is evidence in a respected journal that argues against parental involvement in their kids' food. Let the state-run schools take care of it, the study authors seem to be suggesting, because there is just no way to force parents to abide by government standards. And in fact there are several schools that have done just that by banning food from home.
If the primary purpose of public school was to guarantee the health and nutrition of students, then the only problem with the national school lunch program would be the debatable science behind the dietary assumptions. It is simply not true that controlling for sodium and fat will ensure perfect nutrition for every person. The human body is too complex and our nutrition too interconnected with our emotional, psychological and genetic make-up to know for certain the causal link between what we consume and our overall health.
When such debatable science is coupled with the force of government dictates, it is the parents and children who lose.
Abby W. Schachter, a senior fellow at the Independent Women's Forum, lives in Regent Square and blogs about the intersection of government policy and parenting at captainmommy.com.