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.