A small item in the Washington Post tells us:

The Obama administration will ask Congress to improve childhood nutrition by ridding school vending machines of sugary snacks and drinks and giving school lunch and breakfast to more kids.

Where to begin?

Once, in the past, children actually packed a lunch box to eat lunch at school.

In fact, some of us are old enough to remember when we got a long lunch break so we could go home and eat with our families.

But, under the Great Society program, the “free milk” for poor children program was expanded, and so grew a huge bureaucracy, with the Federal government mandating what schools had to do, and then having to devise ways of giving grants to schools who didn’t have the money. Overlapping mandates didn’t help either. From the USDA webpage:

With several agencies having jurisdiction over various kinds of feeding programs in schools, there often developed dual administration within a school, lack of communication, confusion in records of the use of federally-donated foods, etc. Since the Child Nutrition Act provided for participation in all programs by pre-school children as well as those of elementary and secondary grade levels, the consolidation of all programs was a timely step. Section 13 of the Child Nutrition Act provided the authority for placing all school food services under one agency.  40

Voila, school lunches. Soon mandatory school lunches, paid for by those who could afford them, but free for select children who qualified. And soon, bringing lunch to school was frowned upon, by social pressure.

This was mandated to the states, but the Federal government helped.

And then, in 1968 the program was extended to non schools.

A new section, number 1, was added extending the eligibility for participation in the program to include children in “service institutions,” such term meaning “private, nonprofit institutions or public institutions, such as child day-care centers, settlement houses, or recreation centers, which provide day care, or other child care where children are not maintained in residence, for children from areas in which poor economic conditions exist and from areas in which there are high concentrations of working mothers, and includes public and private nonprofit institutions providing day care services for handicapped children.”

Of course, the dirty little secret of all of this was that much of the well balanced food was thrown away by kids, who promptly took off across the street to buy some decent “junk food” at the store or fast food restaurant.

But some kids actually snuck out to smoke a cigarette…and as society continued to fall apart, buy drugs. So leaving school during school hours soon was outlawed in many districts.

Voila, enter the vending machines. Can’t eat Tuna rice broccoli casserole? Have some Fritos. From Poverty in America website:

 I mean, c’mon, if you’re a 13-year-old middle school student, wouldn’t you rather eat a bag of chips and drink a can of soda than hit the salad bar? At 13, I certainly would have made that choice.

Of course, by the time my kids were in school in the 1980’s, the program in our small coal mining town had realized this and changed the menu to stuff kids actually like, like Pizza and Burritos. They also advertised the menu, so that if it was something the kids didn’t like, the kids could bring their own lunch that day.

So now, the Federal government, who started the lunch program (and the breakfast program, because some kids didn’t get fed breakfast at home), are now going to mandate only “Healthy” foods for your kid in school.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Vilsack outlined changes that include a push to jettison cookies, cakes, pastries and salty food from school vending machines and cafeteria lines. Vilsack says schools need to help kids eat more whole grains, fruits and vegetables.

OK.

Now, who is going to pay for all of this?

Exactly how much money are we talking about? From the Washington Post last September:

The Child Nutrition Act, which supplies breakfast and lunch to some 31 million students at an annual cost of $12 billion, is up for reauthorization by Congress next month. The timing is propitious: President Obama has signaled his interest by including an extra $1 billion in his 2010 budget proposal for school food improvements, and his administration is formulating policies said to be aimed at improving the nutrition and ultimately the health of children.

That amount comes to 300 plus dollars per student, and the USDA website points out that it comes to only 2.68  per free lunch.

That sounds about right.

Yet that is assuming that only the food/food preparation is in the bill.

Who is paying for this part, and who will do the inspections:

Key to the movement is revising the nation’s outdated nutrition guidelines, giving the Agriculture Department more clout to regulate the a la carte foods that children buy and, of course, coming up with the money that school officials need to cover the cost of quality ingredients, train staff and provide proper facilities.

The Healthy Schools Campaign points out that after the overhead expenses, this comes to one dollar per meal per kid of federal money, and urges more bureaucracy to supervise the schools so they can buy fresh food and devise better nutrition for the kids.

Ah, but how much is this actually costing, since this is only counting the food subsidy to local schools?

Remember: Much of the program is mandated, so local district pay for part of the program. And a lot of schools don’t give out free lunches, they only give out lunch which is partly paid for by the students and their families. That means filling out a form with lots of personal information on it to get the lower priced meals for your kids.

What is missing from this picture?

All of this is A GOOD THING. As Winston Churchill told critics of a food subsidy program during World War II: I can’t think of a better investment for England than to put milk into the mouths of babies.

So why question it?

But notice the creeping bureaurocracy, and notice that two thirds of the money doesn’t pay for food, but to overhead and the cost of bureaucratic oversight. And now, the bureaucratic oversight will extend to vending machines.

 I mean, c’mon, if you’re a 13-year-old middle school student, wouldn’t you rather eat a bag of chips and drink a can of soda than hit the salad bar? At 13, I certainly would have made that choice.  Charging the USDA with controlling all food in schools would take these unhealthy options away.

So, more regulations, for the good of the child.

But if the aim is to eliminate junk food, who is going to stop the entrepreneurial student who will sell Fritos and soda out of his backpack or school locker?

Or will we arrest him, as has been done in a British school where a “crisp” dealer was suspended for selling illegal snacks?

So, in the last 50 years, we have gone from lunches for children changing from a routine job for moms to do to a huge bureaucratic federal mandate.

I agree with Winston Churchill, but when the aim of school lunches goes from feeding kids to policing their eating habits, I draw the line.

Get the vending machines out of schools completely, and let the kids bring in their own junk food, or get your nose out of local affairs.

It is not the President’s business to micromanage our kids diets. That’s the job for the Birkenstock-wearing busybody moms at the PTA to do.

Not everything needs a Federal Mandate.

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Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. She writes on medical matters at Hey Doc Xanga Blog. She wears Birkenstocks.

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