In all cheesy school movies, there is in the inevitable scene where some kid yells “Food Fight!” and, before anyone knows it, the entire cafeteria is filled with flying globs of food. In Washington, there has been a metaphorical food fight over how to feed kids in public schools: political parties have been fighting over children’s lunches and how best to make them, despite their utter lack of qualifications for the job.
The end result has, as you may have guessed, been extremely messy and left everyone hungry for real leadership.
The cry of “food fight!” started in 2010, with the passage of the friendly-sounding “Healthy, Hungry-Free Kid Act.” With a name like that, what politician could possibly oppose it without succumbing to accusations like “You are for unhealthy children!” or “you support hungry kids!” Those campaign ads write themselves.
It passed Congress with bipartisan support. And they weren’t alone: the food industry overwhelmingly supported the bill. In it, there were plans for 4.5 billion dollars in additional spending. But I am sure the food industry’s main concern was the healthy children. And with that, Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” mantra was a done deal.
This was five years ago. What have been the results of this innocuously named piece of legislation? One of the most shameful school lunch programs ever created.
According to USA Today, in November of 2014, over 28,000 tweets in one week were registered by students. #ThanksMichelleObama went out with pictures of food that were “nutritional” but looked like they had been scraped out of the garbage. The amount of food on each tray was miniscule. And the look of the food resembled a bad joke in a movie. You’d never actually believe this was being served to an entire school for consumption. It was so bad that the NY Post didn’t even deem it food, referring to it as ‘Mystery Mush.’
The next wave of criticism came in comparing school lunches to prison food. The only problem? Some prisons served much better food! According to the UK Daily Mail, it was even said that prisoners would have turned their nose up at the food that was daily being fed to every American child in the public school system.
That’s correct: convicted felons who eat what the taxpayers decide they should eat are eating better than students who have done nothing wrong. Students who will run this country in the future. Students who will be doctors in the future. Students who will create inventions and run great businesses and charities. They are being treated to worse food than the people who have committed crimes so bad that society had to keep them away from the rest of us. And the taxpayers subsidize both meals!
This week, a comparison between other countries’ school lunches has highlighted just how bad American lunches have become. Pictures of pristine, near-gourmet lunches from other countries put the paltry, colorless servings offered to American students to shame. Now opponents could be quick to say that these were skewed, cherry-picked samples. This may be true, but the notion that the United States of America–one of the most prosperous and affluent countries in the world–is having its lunches lambasted by former communist nations and a country as bankrupt as Greece is not a pretty one. The fact that those nations are even close is not a credit to American lunches! Just the idea that they are comparable is shameful.
What’s more embarrassing? You’ll find this picture of school lunches in Old Havana, Cuba. The lunches offered by the decaying communist nation don’t look that different from what’s being served in United States public schools.
Critics of the legislation noticed something else about this deal. As president Obama and Michelle loudly hailed the healthier lunches as good for Americans, people argued they were being hypocritical. Their own children Malia and Sasha were not eating anything near what the children of the United States had to put up with. And of course it was not just the president’s children who were skipping the meals. Few can believe that the average congressman, senator, or lobbyists children were eating the meals being forced on American children.
As of February of this year the School Nutrition Association determined over 1.4 million had dropped out of the school lunch program altogether since the act was passed. They also noted that the price of meals for schools would be 1.2 billion dollars more in fiscal year 2015 thanks to the new regulations. So with over a million less customers they need to make a billion dollars more. Fiscally this entire legislation has been a nightmare.
And then there is the waste. Waste has increased by 100%, with $684 million thrown away just in the cost of fruits and vegetables. As discovered by a Boston lunch study in 2013, 26% of Middle School lunch budgets ended up in the trash. Can anyone imagine a restaurant running with that kind of waste? Has there ever been a food program, business, or charity that threw away a quarter of its budget and did not mind or make alterations?
The amount of schools that have dropped their federal funding aren’t close to enough to push back on the federal program. In total, maybe one percent of school districts have rejected the new regulations, and only 3% of schools in 2013-2014 were considering dropping this abomination of a school health program. This is unacceptable. To fight these draconian measures, radical reforms need to take place. The schools need to, by overwhelming numbers, reject the malpractice that is being pushed on America’s youth. It is a joke to the modern world that one of the most charitable, prosperous, and innovative countries in the world is having its lunch programs compared to prison food–and losing! America, land of technological innovation and the third agricultural revolution, should not see their school lunches beaten this badly by other nations’ food programs.
After all this evidence, who would still support this program? The answer to that question may be the scariest part of this food fight: in an admission from San Francisco food reformer Dana Wudlow, a huge supporter of these measures, all these complaints are too near-sighted.
But a kindergartener [sic] who’s never seen anything but black bean burgers and salads in the cafeteria is going to be a much easier sell on healthier foods throughout his school years. And that young child is our only hope if we’re going to reverse current trends in obesity and poor lifestyle habits among our nation’s children. So if our choice is to continue the dismal school food status quo because “that’s all kids will eat,” or knowingly lose some kids now to Flaming Hot Cheetos and Cokes with an eye toward those impressionable, incoming kindergarteners [sic] and all the classes that will follow them, I can live with sacrificing a few for the many.
These food reformers are not interested in whether current kids like the lunches. They know the food is not going to taste good. They are aiming at kindergartners, people by their own definition who are “impressionable,” and want these kids to grow accustomed to meals that are bland, poor tasting, and a joke to the rest of the world. These kids will be the customer of the future, and will have no idea that their food is junk. In a few years kids, the old system will be gone and kids will think that the disgusting, tiny amounts of muck on their plates are normal. They won’t understand the fuss. Really, isn’t this option healthier?
If a brainwashing approach is taken to feeding kids, one has to wonder what the approach is to teaching them.
The problem with the new school lunch program is not the kids eating them, but the lunches themselves. This is a destitute program that costs more than it should, wastes more than it should, and drops students out more than it should. The lunch food fight is over, and now its time to clean up the mess left behind. Schools need to stand up to federal regulations and bring school lunches back under local and state control. The political punch-line that opponents of the regulations support obesity or unhealthy kids is a good one, but it deliberately ignores how terrible the program has become. The power to cook, produce, and gather ingredients needs to return to the local and state level for school lunch programs to be effective. At a federal level, school lunch reform has been a complete flop.