The Wretched Nationalization of School Lunch

Don’t you love how all political debates seem to center around two false alternatives? The Obama administration’s school lunch guidelines, codified in a 2010 law and spearheaded by the First Lady, have prompted many students, teachers, parents, and conservative opponents of the regime to protest the smaller portions. Kids complain that they are hungry after eating the low-calorie meals. In response, liberals point to high levels of American obesity and say that under the status quo ante children consumed excessive gobs of fat and sugar. And so these are the two options: unhealthy and not very appetizing Republican school lunches, or even less appetizing and marginally more healthful Democratic school lunches. Or to put it in the Manichean terms of the pundit class—mass obesity and diabetes vs. mass starvation.

Lost in the talking points is the most pressing question: why do the USDA and White House have anything to do with what tens of millions of young Americans eat every day in the first place?

If I could add some more nuance to the topic, I might note where I agree with Mrs. Obama as well as where I agree with her  conservative detractors. It is true that school lunches have been terrible for years and that the school system has encouraged horribly unhealthy habits. The rightwing defense of the high-carb, high-fat, processed American diet has become a perverse thing to behold, given that conservatives tout prudence, personal restraint, and moderation as important cultural values.

On the other hand, it is indeed paternalistic in the extreme for the First Lady or the presidency to tell kids what to eat, to limit their choices, to deprive growing youth of the calories they need to get through the day, to impose a one-size-fits-all regimen upon American schools. And this progressive attitude that if kids are complaining they should just clean off their plates and suck it up is not helping at all. Nor do I really trust government cafeterias with making vegetables and fruits appetizing or more than barely edible. It’s no wonder a kid would rather eat a sodium and fat-drenched piece of fried mystery meat than a salad tossed in a public school dining hall. Many of these public school facilities embody the word “unappetizing,” and often the fresher a food pretends to be, the less safe it is coming from a government kitchen.

For years, the USDA has favored a distorted food pyramid and horrible school lunch programs that seemed more geared toward enriching government contractors and subsidizing the big agricultural lobbies than feeding students affordable, tasty, and healthful meals. What a surprise that the major food groups were so well represented by the corn lobby, the meat lobby, and the dairy lobby. And anyone who actually ate any of this food in the last twenty years knows that it was only one step above the gruel fed in America’s prisons. I’ll never forget the nightmarish “turkey cubes,” floating in gelatinous “gravy,” that were inflicted upon the student body every Thanksgiving week. On a good day, students were treated with chicken nuggets or a quadrilateral of pizza-like substance. On most days, the schools served up something more resembling Soylent Green.

It was in this context that students, starting in middle school and more so in high school, have taken refuge in the fast-food options sometimes provided—pizza delivered from nearby establishments—or simply got their sustenance out of vending machines. It was indeed a dismal situation that warranted the concern that has animated many activists. I have a considerable degree of sympathy for the work of chef Jamie Oliver, whose attempts to reform school lunches seem genuine, well-intentioned, and largely on the right track. And if she demonstrated purely a desire to lead by example, I’d have sympathies for the First Lady’s whole-food crusade as well.

But the federal government shouldn’t have anything to do with school lunches. A national war on obesity is a bad idea for many reasons, and America’s students shouldn’t be the guinea pigs. Instead, if the federal government wants to have a positive influence on the American diet, especially for the youth, it should simply stop making matters so much worse, namely through the absurd amounts of corn subsidies that have flooded the country with high-fructose corn syrup. The Department of Agriculture is what made candy bars cheaper than fruit, and, pushing the low-fat zeitgeist of the last few decades, has overseen a vast increase in sugar consumption, particularly in soda. Before the feds started telling us how to lose weight, we were doing fine.

Good food and education are two crucial pillars of civilization. The national government has wrecked both. Even to the extent that the new school lunch guidelines point to a slightly healthier diet, they cause great harm in the long run, by displacing community, family, and individual choices, and perhaps worst of all, by discrediting the cause of eating well. Nothing has more discouraged millions of students from reading the classics than the school system’s attempt to force kids to read. Nothing destroys the natural desire of children to learn more than the government’s cookie-cutter curriculum. Nothing will deprive kids of the chance to learn the basics more than the federal government’s standardized testing and other nationally imposed programs. And so I expect nothing will ruin the prospects of the next generation eating healthier than the last more than the school system making kids eat tasteless food and telling them it’s good for them.

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