Back in the 1960s, my 2nd Grade teacher had a solution for getting kids to eat their lunch; no talking was allowed until everyone on the table had cleaned their plates.
Eight-year-olds love to talk, so we were highly motivated to clean our plates.
Little did we know back then that yucky school lunches would someday become the center of a huge political firestorm in Washington DC.
Not only does the Obama Administration know what’s best for our health care, now it claims to know what’s best for our kids to eat.
First Lady Michelle Obama has been crusading against childhood obesity and has been the leading voice in calling for children to eat better. That’s O.K., as long as it’s just rhetoric designed to motivate.
But in 2010, the administration pushed through changes to the school lunch program that mandated “healthier” foods for kids at school. The result has been what many predicted would happen — more kids are dumping plates full of food because they don’t like the new “healthier” offerings.
You can put bland and boring food in front of kids, but you can’t make them eat it. (Can’t you hear the kids saying, “Take that, Mrs. Obama!”)
This kids’ revolt against government lunch mandates is being played out against the backdrop of a larger political feud between Republicans and Democrats.
Democrats pushed through Congress the new food standards as a top-down government mandate. Democrats, of course, know what’s best for us. If you don’t believe that, just ask and they’ll tell you. In just about every choice we make — where we should live, what kind of car we should drive, what doctors we should see and what food our kids should eat — Democrats love to dictate what choices we should make.
Republicans aren’t much better. While nominally the party of individual choice and local decision-making, the GOP is also the handmaiden of corporate special interests. With the GOP, it’s difficult to know if they’re concerned about individual choice, or if they’re shrilling for a big political donor.
For example, the food industry — backed by Republicans — had changes made to that 2010 law to allow the tomato sauce on school pizzas to count as a vegetable under the mandate. (The Reagan Administration once wanted ketchup to count as a vegetable, but backed off that idea when the public howled in laughter.)
And the white potato lobby (yes, there is such a thing) wants to make sure its tater tots don’t get banned from school lunches. White potatoes are currently banned from the welfare WIC program and the potato lobby doesn’t want its ubiquitous ‘tots tossed from schools, too.
Now many Republicans are pushing to give schools a waiver for the new nutrition standards if they show the school is losing money under the new guidelines. That move is being pushed by the food industry and by the School Nutrition Association because they say the new rules are inflexible and are leading to a lot of food waste.
While Republicans may carry the corporate interests in this debate, Democrats clearly represent the food extremists.
While no government agency can force us to all eat kale and nibble on roots, many food extremists see the fight over school lunches as a proxy battle on which to wage their campaign to have us change our diets to one they approve of.
They’re not totally wrong, of course. We’re an obese nation of fatties who eat horrible diets of fries and ding-dongs while we chug sodas full of sugar.
And nowhere is obesity more of a problem than here in the South where our diets and lifestyles make over 25 percent of us obese. But even in areas of the country where people eat healthier, obesity is going up.
Studies show that as a whole, the nation is eating more fruits and vegetables per capita than in 1970. But we’re also eating a lot more junk food, too. The solution to obesity isn’t to eat more fruits and vegetables, it’s to eat less of everything and to be more physically active.
The response to the obesity issue by food extremists has been overkill. The school lunch move is an example of how good intentions don’t make for good results. If kids are dumping more food into the trash, how is that changing their dietary habits? How is that making them healthier?
Another government group, the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, may even go further to the political left. Stacked by academics and no food representatives, the committee will make recommendations next year that could have an impact on everything from school lunches to requirements for federal and state nutrition programs.
The problem is, that committee seems to be veering more into politics than nutrition. Critics say the group is focused more on “sustainability” and climate change than on the science of nutrition.
The group has reportedly been discussing animal rights, immigration and environmentalism rather than the science of what would be healthy for us to eat.
Some on the committee are pushing to recommend a “plant-based” diet and on eating the more expensive organic food, although studies question the health benefits of organic foods over conventional foods.
Both sides of this debate are full of special interests lobbying for their own agenda to be included in the 2015 recommendations. (There’s even a Hispanic group lobbying the group to include more ethnic foods from its culture.)
Of course, there is a simple solution to the school lunch controversy — have kids bring their own sack lunch. Let parents and kids decide what they should eat, not schools or bureaucrats in Washington. Bring back the brown bags.
If some parents want their fat kids to eat junk food, so be it. If other parents want their kids to eat tofu sandwiches, that’s O.K. too. To each his own.
At least we wouldn’t have to listen to politicians play politics with something as dull as school lunches.
Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.