Time to stick a plastic fork into this federal program?

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 required the Agriculture Department to set different standards for school lunches. The food may be healthier, but now ...

I never bought school lunches. My mom always packed mine into a metal lunchbox. I would buy a little bottle of whole milk at the cafeteria for 3 cents. Impossibly, I still have a Keds shoe box full of the cardboard bottle stops, each illustrated with a sketch of a U.S. president. The latest one was LBJ. Today the prosaic school lunch has become an object of intense federal effort — and the evidence shows it’s not working out too well.

This effort from the Agriculture Department, is the result of a 2010 law ostensibly aimed at reducing childhood obesity. The Government Accountability Office’s Kay Brown told me it’s too early to tell if the federal smackdown on school lunches has had any effect nationally, but the whole grain pastas and bread, mandated peas and beans, and evil-looking stuffed potatoes have had plenty of impact: kids are staying away in droves. Nationally, GAO finds, participation in school lunch programs has fallen 4.5 percent since the 2010-11 school year.

school lunch
New federal school lunch rules have produced some odd results. Photo: trendingcurrentevents.com

Brown says that in visits to eight school districts, she insisted auditors buy and eat the chow themselves. That’s dedication! True to the even-keeled approach of GAO, Brown says some of the lunches were decent, others, well, not so good. Published reports have shown lurid images of oddly-colored nuggets, piles of glop, and just plain meager amounts. Whole web sites are devoted to this, driven by parental revulsion.

The nation shouldn’t be choking over school lunches.

GAO for three years running has found so-called SFAs — school food authorities — puzzled by the detail in the regulations. USDA has issued 4,000 pages of memos to clarify them.

To be fair to USDA, I note that the National School Lunch Program dates back to 1946. As GAO points out, some degree of regulation over what schools serve has existed, but “as research has documented the increasing incidence of children who are overweight and obese in the United States, the federal government has taken steps to improve the nutritional content of meals.”

It’s taken steps alright. But here’s the issue as I see it. Nobody’s ever mistaken school lunches for takeout from Maxim’s. But it’s hard to see how making them even less palatable would do anything but drive kids to other sources of food — like the local Mickey D’s, heaven forbid. Regulations affecting what alternate foods schools can sell have caused participation and revenues to drop, too, GAO reported.

One can only imagine the cost to a school district to come into compliance with rules as dense as these proposed back in 2012.  Such as, “(A) Enriched macaroni. Enriched macaroni with fortified protein as defined in Appendix A to Part 210 may be used to meet part of the meats/meat alternates requirement when used as specified in Appendix A to Part 210. An enriched macaroni product with fortified protein as defined in Appendix A to Part 210 may be used to meet part of the meats/meat alternates component or the grains component but may not meet both food components in the same lunch.”

I’m not bashing USDA. It got a mandate from Congress and is trying to carry it out. But rule making tends to beget itself, and it can spread like a dropped pitcher of Kool-Aid.

So if kids are turning away, and there’s no change so far in national rates of obesity, could it be time to ease up? Could it be local school officials, food service preparers and parents can figure out what their kids should eat?

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