July 17 2014
As Julie noted, the White House is angry with the organization representing school lunch ladies across the country. It seems the members of the School Nutrition Association don’t want Michelle Obama’s food policy czar, chef Sam Kass, to speak at their annual convention. But Kass was the star of the same convention just two years ago, so what’s changed?
Mostly what’s different this year is that SNA members are suffering under the yolk of government bullying – ahem, regulations – to adhere to a set of nutrition standards that was set by the First Lady and Congress. These rules, which were part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which passed in 2010, have resulted in lots of problems for schools, such as children who won’t eat from the new menus, too-low calorie counts so that some students aren’t getting enough to eat throughout the day, too much wasted food, which is busting school food budgets, as well as students pulling out of the lunch program which means less money from Washington. “Our members are very frustrated,” said Patricia Montague, SNA’s CEO.
SNA has good reason to be upset, but no one should be surprised. And indeed, given a chance to address the 55,000-member organization’s conference this year, there was one Democrat who inadvertently got to the heart of the matter, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), was trying to warn the conference attendees that their anger should be directed at Republicans instead of the White House. “My advice is also to not ask Congress to fix this legislatively because Congress will screw it up,” said McGovern. Funny, but the program is screwed up already, which is why SNA wants a waiver to get out from under some of the rules.
It is sad that any member of Congress would refer to the efficacy of his own branch of the government with such a lack of confidence, but give Mr. McGovern points for honesty. The truth of the matter is that often – all too often, in fact – government programs fail and any Congressionally-devised remedy to the original failure is equally bad.
Peter Schuck, an emeritus professor of law at Yale would certainly agree. As he argues in his new book Why Government Fails so Often and How it Can do Better (Princeton University Press), part of the issue is that the current concept of government includes a lot of activity that it simply cannot do well – national school lunch program anyone? “The relationship between government's growing ambition and its endemic failure," Schuck explains, “is rooted in an inescapable structural condition: officials' meager tools and limited understanding of the opaque, complex social world that they aim to manipulate.”
This describes the problems with Mrs. Obama’s reforms to the existing school lunch program to a T. Top-down limits on salt, calories and whole grains for thousands of meals that will be served to millions of kids is just not going to work. The problem with the SNA is that they originally supported the rules for lunch menus they are now complaining about and the answer is simply not with modifying a bad government program.
During his remarks to the lunch ladies, McGovern tried to scare his listeners. “There are members of Congress,” he said, “who believe the government shouldn’t be involved in school lunch at all.” But this statement isn’t scary, it is actually true. For this brutal honesty, McGovern should have received loud applause.