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Dance with a turnip — it’s National School Lunch Week!

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As part of her effort make healthy eating look cool, First Lady Michelle Obama recently posted of short video of herself dancing to a hip-hop song with a turnip in hand.

But, hey, National School Lunch Week is the Mardi Gras of the Federal School Lunch Program, so this week — and this week only — Mrs. Obama can dance with whatever fruit, vegetable, legume, lean protein, or whole grain she desires.

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Years before she danced with a turnip, First Lady Michelle Obama championed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.  The legislation passed in 2010 and was designed to combat childhood obesity by providing more nutritious school meals for public school children. That was and is a laudable goal.  The implementation of the law, however, produced numerous unintended consequences, including boosting costs, increasing food waste, and discouraging participation in child nutrition programs.

In June, the N.C. State Board of Education heard an overview of the impact of federal rules and regulations for school nutrition programs.  The following is a summary of North Carolina’s implementation of the law provided by N.C. Department of Public Instruction staff:

  • Preliminary projections indicate an increase in food and labor costs by $0.25 for lunch and $0.32 for breakfast by 2015
  • Food/labor costs increased between $0.10 — $0.16 per lunch served in 2012-2013
  • Food waste increased for multiple reasons — student taste preferences, too little time to eat
  • Student participation declined by 3 percent in the paid meal category; overall state-wide participation declined from 62 to 58 percent
  • Whole grains for all foods have not been well-accepted by many students
  • Storage space (frozen, chilled, dry) for additional fruits and vegetables is limited
  • Continuing education requirements for school nutrition personnel increased significantly
  • The scope, complexity, and intricacy of school nutrition operations increased exponentially

These findings were predictable.  In February, the Government Accountability Office reported that "most states reported that SFAs [school food authorities] faced challenges with addressing plate waste–or foods thrown away rather than consumed by students–and managing food costs, as well as planning menus and obtaining foods that complied with portion size and calorie requirements."  GAO analysts predicted that plate waste, menu planning, and food compliance would improve over time.  They warned, however, that high food costs, insufficient food storage and kitchen equipment, and limits on sodium in lunches would continue to present ongoing challenges to state child nutrition programs.

Costs will always be a concern, but the most worrisome issue is the lack of sufficient food storage and adequate kitchen equipment in public schools.  In the September 2014 issue of the Journal of Food Protection, N.C. State researchers found that North Carolina schools had difficulty keeping leafy green vegetables, which had the potential of harboring serious foodborne illnesses, refrigerated at the mandated temperature.

In response to these problems, some school districts have opted out of the federal school lunch program.  The Douglas County School District in Colorado and the Fort Thomas Independent Schools in Kentucky are two of a handful of districts that concluded that it was better to refuse federal child nutrition subsidies than struggle to comply with burdensome regulations.

Theoretically, the legislation may actually achieve its goal, albeit in a perverse way.  Public school children may become healthier as they eat less food, that is, discard a portion of the calories on their trays.  In the real world, students seek alternatives. For example, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act has been a boon to black markets for junk food.  Moreover, families who opt out of the school lunch program may bring healthier and more satisfying lunches from home. Yet, some schools are banning brown bag lunches or tossing lunches prepared by parents for their children. 

My colleague Julie Gilstrap said it best,

I don’t doubt that those promoting new regulations about calories and sodium are doing so because they care about kids.  I agree with them that eating healthier is good for children.  And adults, for that matter.  But parents already have the option to either buy school lunches or pack lunches for their kids.  Many schools allow children to make choices about the food they eat.  Trying to eliminate all options that a bureaucrat (or a first lady) deems unhealthy is an utterly unworkable solution.  Parents and individual schools are much better placed to make decisions about the food that their kids eat.

Indeed, well-intentioned federal mandates are no substitute for parents and individual schools working together to improve the nutrition of public school children.

Facts and Stats

No state legislatures have adopted the turnip as the state vegetable.

Acronym of the Week

NSLP — National School Lunch Program

Quote of the Week

"Before the Healthy, Hunger-Free Act was implemented, our district had already been looking at ways in which to offer healthier foods for students than what had been served in the past."

– Assistant Superintendent Michael Vespi, who oversees the Food Services Department for the Fayetteville-Manlius Schools in New York, quoted in "Is opting out of the federal school lunch program better or worse for our kids?"

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Dr. Stoops is the director of the Center for Effective Education. Before joining the Locke Foundation in 2005, he worked as the program assistant for the Child Welfare Education Programs at the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work. He… ...

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