In June, I brought you an update on the nutrition war front with NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s decision to ban large sodas over 16 ounces from being served in the city’s restaurants.  Later that month, I updated the nutrition saga with the news that Bloomberg’s city council unanimously approved the measure, and even went further to suggest other “unhealthy” foods or behaviors that should also be restricted.  I pointed out at the time that such policies have not been successful in reducing the rate of obesity in controlled environments like public schools, so there was really no expectation that the SodaGate policies would be successful in the public realm either.

Now, another battle in the nutrition war has come to the forefront.  This time, it’s bigger than just vending machines: it’s a fight for the very stomachs of the next generation.

In 2010 during the lame duck session of congress, the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act was passed under the auspice of both providing all public school children with nutritious school lunches and educating children on the importance of good nutrition.  Michelle Obama was a big promoter of the legislation as a part of her nutrition programs.  However, there was another purpose: to combat the rise of obesity by dialing down on the calorie intake of children.

Under the law, a school lunch cannot contain more than 850 calories worth of food.  Certain types of high-calorie and high-fat food are restricted in the amounts that can be served, and fruits and vegetables do not share such limits.  However, the law also regulates that a larger variety of fruits and vegetables must be served with lunches, so unappetizing vegetables to younger people (like kale) may not be eaten with the zest that the law’s authors may have had in mind.

School districts around the country have begun reporting that students are left still feeling hungry after lunch.  US Department of Agriculture officials responded by claiming that this is a problem with the students and not the policy.  Students not used to eating large amounts of vegetables or fruit, or who are used to larger portion sizes, may need to adjust their eating habits over time.

It’s reasonable to assume that in some cases, this is true.  However, there are other reasons for concern.  Nutritionists have suggested that active teenagers, in particular high school athletes, may require up to 5,000 calories a day.  Non-athletes can still require as much as 3,000 per day.  Failing to meet these dietary requirements can be harmful to student health, and could result in declining athletic performance or even the destruction of muscle and tissue mass.  The meager allowance provided by the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act only meets between 17% and 28% of high school students’ daily caloric requirements.

850 calories during the middle of the day may simply not be enough to get many active students through until dinner, and many have begun taking steps to oppose the new law as a result.  Congressman Steve King (R-IA) has already proposed legislation to repeal the relevant portions of the law that allow the USDA to set caloric and dietary requirements for school lunches.  School-based groups have also begun protesting: One school district already released a satiric video (now viral) parodying the popular song “We are Young” as “We are Hungry” that shows the kids in the school as hungry, falling asleep in class, and utterly failing at sports.

In the meantime, students are taking the lunch situation into their own hands.  Students have begun throwing away the unappetizing vegetables that they are served, and other schools’ students began protesting by packing their lunches en masse.  Other students who eat the school lunch are leaving campus to get fast food on the side.  One intrepid group of students began an underground chocolate syrup trade at their high school -50 cents a squeeze- to make from scratch the chocolate milk that was taken off the menu by the new law.

If more kids continue to seek for food outside the school setting, the law will inevitably fail to combat obesity.  Surprised?  Don’t be.  As I cited in my articles on Bloomberg’s SodaGate controversy, a recent study performed by University of Illinois Chicago researchers found that schoolwide bans on sodas don’t actually work because students will either simply purchase those beverages that are still allowed (like Gatorade or fruity drinks) or buy them outside the school setting.  In some cases, students may actually drink more soda than they had previously as a result of those policies!

It’s not a huge logical leap to assume that a similar phenomenon would occur with school lunch.  It’s actually more reasonable that it would occur with lunch food than with soda in one sense: unlike soda which is an optional item, food like that served at lunch is actually necessary for the proper functioning of the human body.

What can we conclude?  One, is that the policy won’t succeed in fighting obesity if kids are still (rightfully) allowed to pack their own lunches or find other ways to increase their calorie intake during the day.  Two, is that politicians and experts really don’t think about human nature when they craft policies.  Creating one top-down standard that everyone must rigidly adhere to does not allow for the diversity of circumstances that exists in society, and often such standards create more harm (i.e. hungry kids) than good.

I personally feel bad for those low-income students whose families have become dependent on reduced-price lunch or free lunch programs.  It doesn’t appear that these kids have a way out, and their health may actually be negatively impacted as a result of this policy if they can’t get enough food at home to make up for the lost calories at school.

Just like Bloomberg needs to get his hands of the soda fountain, Michelle Obama needs to keep her hands off the school lunch counter.

David Giffin | Emory University | @D_Giffin