Tag: national school lunch

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.

An Overdue Acknowledgement that Stuff Costs Money

The Institute of Medicine issued a report today calling on whole scale changes to the National School Lunch and National School Breakfast programs (although nowhere does it question why we even have national nutrition programs, which surely properly belong to the states and/or school districts. But I digress). The changes all sound sensible enough: setting calorie limits for meals, increasing the amount of whole grains, fruit and vegetables in school meals, and reducing fat and sodium.

But here’s the clincher: the recommendations would cost money!

The panel acknowledged that its recommendations would increase costs and called for a higher federal reimbursement to school districts, capital investments and money to train cafeteria workers to make the changes. Food costs for breakfasts could rise as much as 9%, and for lunches as much as 25%, if all the recommendations were enacted, the committee said. (source: LA Times)

We should be grateful that the authors at least acknowledge the budgetary impacts of their recommendations. So often it is assumed that school nutrition programs can and should be changed regardless of the costs to taxpayers. Last week I taped a television debate show called Two Way Street (the show is scheduled to air in January, so check your local listings!) with a woman called Ann Cooper, the “Renegade Lunch Lady” (here’s Ann’s website). Ann is on a mission to “change the way our children are eating”. Her intentions are good, and I certainly agree with her that our woeful agriculture policies are skewing incentives towards certain food groups and away from fruit and vegetables.

Having said that, Ann’s experience with school cafeterias was, from what I can gather, gained in East Hampton, NY and Berkeley, CA. Hardly representative samples of consumers across America (although she has reportedly worked in Harlem and New York City, also).  So often “success” in these sorts of places is seen as a scalable blueprint for the rest of the country.  Indeed, Ann used her time on the show to encourage viewers to contact their member of Congress and urge increased Federal funding for nutrition programs.

On the contrary, I would argue that people instead encourage their congresscritters to devolve their ill-gotten power over school nutrition programs back to the local school districts, where they can make the best assessment of the costs and benefits of different plans, given local needs and resources.