It’s time for school lunch programs to go local

Two weeks ago, President Barack Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act into law. And although this legislation makes both lawmakers and parents feel good about the government taking charge and providing much-needed improvement to school lunches, it fails to acknowledge that the falling standards surrounding school lunches were Washington, D.C.’s responsibility all along.

Under President Jimmy Carter’s administration, standards were set to supposedly ensure that foods sold in schools had at least 5 percent of an essential nutrient, such as protein or calcium. Yes, that is right — there really are strict regulations in place. And, from a distance, they seem reasonable, banning the sale of “foods of minimal nutritional value.” Notice that candy bars, salty snacks, sodas, pizza and French fries are all meeting that minimal-nutrition standard.

What about fat? Sodium? Calories? Carter standards have done nothing to limit them.

And, of course, there are loopholes. The end result is a doughnut can be sold in your daughter’s high school cafeteria, but not a lollipop. Breath mint? No, not enough nutritional value. Cookies are OK, though.

On this we can all agree: Public school lunches are an embarrassment. And, for that matter, unhealthy.

For all the talk in the capital of finally regulating schools into better food choices — the core purpose of the child nutrition bill that the president signed into law earlier this month — a bit of sore news during this sweet holiday season: The federal government has been in the business of micromanaging our children’s lunches for 30 years.

The people busy subsidizing corn production and talking up the consumption of cheese (paying for a $12 million ad campaign for Domino’s new line of cheese-heavy pizzas) will now be charged with better regulating the school-lunch programs they have been negligently regulating for three decades.

Add in the fact that millions of kids’ meals are federally sponsored with the school lunch program, meaning that the unhealthy food served often receives a double subsidy (to agribusiness and then to schools). Taxpayers are paying and paying again.

With rising rates of childhood obesity, federal officials have been regulating and subsidizing a new generation of diabetics.

And do not assume for a moment that congressional oversight has been lacking. In fact, the legislation enabling the school lunch program is renewed by Congress every five years.

Liberal groups cry foul, suggesting that the process is heavily influenced by lobbyists carving up the billions of dollars at stake in the setting of nutritional standards. But then, ironically, they collectively champion a dubious idea: heavier regulations from Washington.

Those groups have influenced the Democratic majorities in the House and the Senate into crafting legislation that would create a heavy hand if there ever was one.

The U.S. Agriculture Department now gains oversight over much of everything food-related in schools. Even bake sales.

Some conservatives have focused on the bake-sale provisions — at a time of war, with record deficits, it seems that there is nothing better to do in Washington than go after your local high school’s efforts to raise money for the band or the gym team. But the bad-brownie ban is the least of our problems. It is not the future of the dessert table that is at stake. It is the millions of meals served to our children, and their resulting health.

We need a sensible solution here. That is not to totally dismiss the entire child nutrition bill, but it is to suggest that we need a more common-sense approach — less Washington-heavy.

An alternative? Go local. Some schools have been unusually innovative. In St. Paul, Minn., for example, schools opt for healthier options in the cafeteria, like homemade breads. How to replicate this on a national scale? States could offer voluntary guidelines, then publish lists of complying and noncomplying schools — a move that would ultimately empower parents, not Washington bureaucrats.

And that would be a big fat deal.

Dr. David Gratzer is a physician and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

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