Jayson Lusk | December 17, 2014

Who Should Decide What’s for Lunch?

Jayson Lusk

“Mystery mush entrees, mystery mush desserts, and a solitary roll next to a mound of canned corn—teens are tweeting photos of these unappetizing school lunches under the hashtag #thanksmichelleobama,” USA Today recently reported.

It’s happening here in Oklahoma, too. News reports out of Chickasha, for example, revealed what is simply one more unintended consequence of Michelle Obama’s school lunch room rules imposed by the “Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.” Ironically, the “Hunger-Free” act is doing precisely what it purports to avoid: causing hunger.

Served what the school district calls a “munchable,” Chickasha student Kaytlin Shelton took a photo of the slim pickings she was served for lunch, which consisted of lunch meat, a couple of crackers, a slice of cheese, and two pieces of cauliflower.

The skimpy portions meet the new federal guidelines, which require schools to follow rules placing limits on the number of calories and minimums on the number of fruits and vegetables that must be plated.

This isn’t the first time students have complained that they’re not getting enough to eat. The complaints also come amidst further concerns about federal over-reach limiting what can be sold in school bake sales and classroom parties. One of the bigger issues with the federal guidelines is the increase in food waste.

According to a couple of recent papers by Cornell economists, the new school lunch rules are increasing food waste. One study, in the journal Public Health Nutrition, found that requiring schools to place additional servings of fruits and vegetables on kids’ plates in a school lunch line (as is required by new standards) causes a small increase in fruit and vegetable consumption but also a huge increase in waste.

Some of the media discussion surrounding the findings suggests that: “For every one to two children who eat fruits or vegetables under the new federal guidelines, five throw them away.” This results in $3.8 million worth of food being thrown away each year.

Another study by some of the same authors, appearing in the journal PLOS ONE, looked at the effects of another school lunch policy: banning chocolate milk. While removing chocolate milk from school cafeterias may reduce calorie and sugar consumption, it may also lead students to take less milk overall, drink less (waste more) of the white milk they do take, and no longer purchase school lunch. Although more students took white milk after the chocolate milk ban, they wasted about 29 percent more than before the ban.

David Just and his colleagues at Cornell have been studying all kinds of ways to increase fruit and vegetable consumption among school children by doing things like re-orienting lunch lines, placing kid-friendly stickers on fruits and veggies, providing economic incentives, changing payment methods, and more. I like this experimental approach to seeing what works—particularly when paired with research on cost-effectiveness. But, as their research shows, simply banning foods or mandating that schools plate more fruits and veggies is largely ineffective and wasteful.

Even before the law was fully implemented, one school official noted: “Nothing is achieved when money is spent on food that children won’t even be able to consume and nothing is more disheartening … than to see perfectly good and perfectly untouched food thrown into the trash.”

And, yet another complaint is the rising cost of school lunch, which encourages kids and parents to substitute away from the government-subsidized meals.

Federal officials focused on the school lunch program are trying to do too much.

We have a mess—a convoluted mix of policies that try to get enough calories in the bellies of poor kids so they’re not starving at night while simultaneously trying to get the richer kids who can have anything they want at home to eat a few more carrots at school.

The point isn’t that parents and local school boards shouldn’t think about how to improve their children’s health. The key question is who is in the best position to make this determination? And, whether there is scientific evidence on the costs and benefits of the policies being imposed.

It’s easy for someone in Washington to enact mandates without any knowledge of the location-specific costs and trade-offs. As a USDA report put it, “Policymakers face hard choices because the children served by the National School Lunch Program have diverse nutritional needs, making a single policy for all difficult to craft.”

We need more research on the impacts of school lunch room policies before they’re implemented. And, local parents and teachers need to be empowered to creatively address their children’s lunchroom challenges rather than being tasked to following the myriad complicated dictates from Washington.

Jayson Lusk

Samuel Roberts Noble Distinguished Fellow

Agricultural economist Jayson Lusk is the Samuel Roberts Noble Distinguished Fellow at OCPA. The author of The Food Police: A Well-Fed Manifesto about the Politics of Your Plate (Crown Forum, 2013), Dr. Lusk is Regents Professor and Willard Sparks Endowed Chair at Oklahoma State University.

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