Tag: Michelle Obama

We’re from the Government and We’re Here to Help: School Lunch Edition

How much does a “free” school lunch cost?

In the last few years, First Lady Michelle Obama has worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to make school lunches healthier. In 2011, Neal McCluskey argued that, though well-intentioned, the changes would result in more wasted food, higher costs, and major implementation challenges. The General Accounting Office has now issued a report that confirms these concerns:

According to the GAO report, local and state authorities told researchers the new standards have resulted in more waste, higher food costs, challenges with menu planning and difficulties in sourcing products that meet the federal portion and calorie requirements.

When such decisions are made at the local level, schools can solicit and respond to feedback from parents and students. However, when the proverbial faceless bureaucrat in some distant Washington office decides, the rules tend to be uniform and inflexible, leading to all sorts of unintended consequences:

The federal government’s changes to school lunch menus have been disastrous, causing problems for cafeterias trying to comply with the rules and leaving the menu so expensive or unpalatable that more than 1 million students have stopped buying lunch, according to a government audit…

One school district told federal investigators that it had to add unhealthy pudding and potato chips to its menu to meet the government’s minimum calorie requirements. Other school districts removed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches from their elementary school menus.

Five of the eight school districts surveyed by the Government Accountability Office, the official watchdog for Congress, said they believed students were going hungry because of smaller entree portions demanded by the rules.

In other words, the so-called “Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act” actually resulted in some kids being served less healthy food while other kids went hungry.

Two-thirds of states reported on the GAO survey that implementation in 2012-13 was a “very great challenge” or an “extreme challenge.” The report noted that much of the difficulty was related to the sheer volume of regulations. In just 18 months, the USDA issued 1,800 pages of “guidance” for following the new rules. Moreover, the “guidance” was “provided too late in the 2012-2013 school year to be helpful” because schools “had already planned menus and trained food service staff” on what they thought the new rules required. However, some guidance memos “either substantively changed or contradicted aspects of previously issued memos.” When state officials contacted the USDA’s regional offices for guidance on understanding the “guidance,” the USDA staff were “sometimes unable to answer state questions on the guidance.” 

Let’s hope this serves as a cautionary tale for those who want the federal government to play a larger role in education policy in general.

A Libertarian Moment in Turkey?

What are the protesters in Istanbul upset about? Well, I noted last week that a survey by a Turkish newspaper gave us a partial picture. A headline from the Hurriyet Daily News in Istanbul reported: 

Protesters are young, libertarian and furious at Turkish PM, says survey

An online survey of 3000 protesters conducted by two academics found, among other things:

A majority of the protesters who completed the survey, 81.2 percent, defined themselves as “libertarian.” A total of 64.5 percent of the respondents defined themselves as “secular.”

And now the Washington Post tells us that one young protester, Aysun Yerlikaya, objects to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan because he’s, well, too much like Michelle Obama and Michael Bloomberg:

Erdogan “pokes into everything — what you drink, what you eat,” she said, referring to advice he gave earlier this year to eat “genuine wheat bread” with a lot of bran in it.

Michelle Obama on Personal Responsibility and the Limits of Federal Programs

Yesterday the First Lady addressed high school students visiting Georgetown University for a day. Her message was to encourage students to strive for academic success and college degrees, but her answer to one question said a whole lot more. Here’s the question:

about the community, like, about this violence and teen pregnancy that’s going on…. What could you and your husband do to change or help out us young people?  Because it’s like someone dying every day.  Like, it’s just crazy.

Mrs. Obama answered at length, stressing the need for every individual to take responsibility for his own life and his own destiny, going so far as to add that

there’s all this stuff the President and Congress can do, but trust me, they can’t fix that.  No matter what, they can’t get in your head and change that.  You have to do that.

The First Lady is right that people must take responsibility for themselves, but what she seems not to realize is that government programs often stifle that kind of behavior. Responsibility is like a muscle: use it or lose it. The only way you learn how to behave responsibly is to actually have real responsibilities. Government has gotten in the way of that process in a host of ways, but nowhere so perniciously as in education. Today, the only educational responsibilities most parents have is to get their kids up in the morning and point them in the direction of the school or the school bus. They don’t decide where their kids go to school, who teaches them, or what they’ll be taught. The natural result—the inevitable result—is the atrophy of parental responsibility towards their children’s education and the horrendous cascade of social ills that flows from it.

Most of this is the fault of our state school monopolies that automatically assign children to schools based on where they live. But the federal government has exacerbated that problem by centralizing control over schooling even further. By abolishing their failed k-12 education programs alone, Congress would save the nation’s taxpayers roughly $70 billion annually. And by encouraging states to return power over education to parents instead of leaving it with bureaucrats, they would dramatically increase the exact kind of responsible behavior that Mrs. Obama knows is essential to solving so many of our social and economic problems.

Consider that the state of Florida has a program that cuts taxes on businesses that donate to non-profit k-12 scholarship funds. Those scholarship organizations subsidize private school tuition for low-income families. According to two separate studies, this program improves achievement in public schools, by virtue of the new competitive pressures it introduces, and it improves the achievement of the students who participate. And by requiring parents to make the difficult decisions as to where to send their children to school, and by requiring most parents to contribute at least a small co-payment, this program builds exactly the kind of responsibility and exactly the kind of social capital that Mrs. Obama so rightly yearns for.

Oh, and, by the way, it saves taxpayers $1.49 for every dollar it reduces state revenue, so it makes economic sense in the immediate term as well as in the long term.

But there’s a catch: This practical and proven solution does not seem to fit well with Mrs. Obama’s political ideology—or, more damagingly, with her husband’s. So instead of ending failed federal education programs and encouraging parental choice, power, and responsibility, the president will keep pursuing federal programs that even his own wife recognizes are doomed to fail.

But while it’s hard for a person to change his ideology, it’s easy for a country to change its president.

Don’t Tread on My Plate

Last week First Lady Michelle Obama and the U.S. Department of Agriculture unveiled “ChooseMyPlate.gov,” an updating of the federal government’s ongoing efforts to lecture us on how to eat. While the idea of nutrition recommendations from Washington, D.C. isn’t itself new, the past couple of years have seen a lurch toward a more coercive approach, especially under the Obama administration, under pressure from a burgeoning “food policy” movement, as I explain in a new Daily Caller op-ed:

All sorts of nannyish and coercive ideas are emerging from that [movement] nowadays: proposals at the FDA to limit salt content in processed foods; mandatory calorie labeling, which poses a significant burden on many smaller food vendors and restaurants; new mandates on food served in local schools; advertising bans; and on a local level efforts to ban things like Happy Meals at McDonald’s. No wonder many parents, local officials and skeptics in Congress are beginning to say: Back off, guv. It’s my plate.

The fact is that the federal government’s dietary advice has changed often through the years—the Washington Post had a great feature on past federal dietary guidelines, under which sweets and even butter held their place as food groups—and that government’s recommendations have regularly proved wrong and even damaging, a point that Steve Malanga elaborates on in this City Journal piece (“Following the government’s nutritional advice can make you fat and sick.”)

Yesterday, C-SPAN’s Washington Journal had me on opposite Maya Rockeymoore of the group Leadership for Healthy Communities to discuss issues that ranged from the school lunch program to whether Washington should serve as an “arbiter” of contending dietary claims, an idea I didn’t much care for. You can watch here.

Wednesday Links

First Lady Asks Nurses to Engage in Legislative Advocacy with Their Patients

No, seriously.  First Lady Michelle Obama is asking nurses to promote ObamaCare to their patients.

With hundreds of thousands of medical errors occurring each year – a problem that ObamaCare does nothing to address – this is exactly what I want my nurse thinking about as she’s inserting a needle into my arm.

Eat Your Vegetables — If You Want To

This morning’s question at Politico Arena is:

The New York Times reports that despite two decades of public health initiatives Americans still aren’t eating enough vegetables. Healthy eating is a priority of First Lady Michelle Obama. Should those of us with less than Olympic-calibre physiques heed the first lady’s dietary advice? Does this smack of Big Brother – or more precisely Big Sister – wading into personal decisions? Could voluntary preferences on food issues morph into government mandates?

Of all the “Washington elites” they surveyed, I was almost the only one to express skepticism about the First Lady’s and the New York Times’s expectations for the rest of us:

I was struck by that New York Times article on Saturday. The headline is “Told to Eat Its Vegetables, America Orders Fries.” We Americans are just a constant trial to our elites. We cling not only to our religion and our guns but to our French fries. The government has TOLD us to eat vegetables, and yet we persist in eating tasty food. Soon we may be sent to our rooms without supper.

And then the reporter wrote, in this news story, “Despite two decades of public health initiatives, stricter government dietary guidelines, record growth of farmers’ markets and the ease of products like salad in a bag, Americans still aren’t eating enough vegetables.” America to the New York Times reporting staff: We’ll decide the proper tradeoff between taste, price, nutrition and so on. “Enough vegetables” is a subjective decision, not a fact.

More fundamentally, Why is it any of the federal government’s business how fit we are? We don’t need a national nanny.

The federal government has an important role in our society. Its primary function is national security, and it hasn’t been doing a very good job. It should focus on that.

Americans know that first they say you “should,” and the next thing you know they want to make it mandatory. Already people are talking about taxing junk food. And they’re filing suit against fast-food companies.

We teach our kids to take responsibility for themselves and to Mind Your Own Business – the government should take that advice.

A lot of this is old-fashioned American Puritanism – the idea that anything you enjoy is bad for you– so they tell us don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t eat, recycle, practice safe sex, ride that bicycle.

A subversive page editor at the New York Times inserted a pull quote (in the print edition) reading “Besides, the taste, trouble and cost, what’s the problem?” Exactly. We Americans are sorry for being such a disappointment to the first lady and the New York Times. But not that sorry.