December 15 2010
This week, the president signed Michelle Obama's Child Nutrition Bill. Ostensibly aimed at providing children with more nutritious school meals, the bill will instead lead to a greater reliance on the badly managed school food programs while simultaneously weakening the very institution that might be the key to solving the problems of childhood obesity - good parenting.
The 200-plus page bill is standard Washington meddling with that familiar feel of government overreach. It's full of new regulations and nutrition standards, expands USDA authority over local school districts, levies fines for noncompliance, and funds training, technical support, and a "food service management institute." It also requires a slew of sure-to-be-ignored reports, studies, and research. The bill also expands participation in these programs by automatically enrolling children using state Medicaid records and federal census data.
To laud her achievement, the first lady took to the podium at the bill signing. The president, surrounded by teachers and students, stood proudly next to her and made jokes about having to sleep on the couch if the bill failed to pass. Hardy har har.
The first lady used boilerplate language to congratulate all those who worked on the bill and employed a number of familiar bromides to praise its passage. Terms like "we can all agree," and "nothing is more important," and "the values this bill embodies" were scattered throughout her speech before she melodramatically stated that it will "save lives."
That's a bit of a stretch. The U.S. actually has very low levels of hunger. According to the USDA, only 14 percent of U.S. households have experienced "food insecurity" - which only means intermittent problems putting food on the table, not chronic starvation. And let's put this in perspective: According to the U.N. World Food Program, 98 percent of the world's hungry live in developing nations, a majority in only seven countries: India, China, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Ethiopia.
Despite the exaggerated rhetoric surrounding the bill's passage, everyone can agree that ensuring children have access to healthy food is a good thing. But the real impact of this bill is much larger than nutrition. It represents an enormous growth in government. Not in the way we've seen it lately - into the financial and business sectors - but into our personal lives and the lives of our children. It tells parents to cease their most basic role - to feed your child. Because why would they bother to do it when schools now feed children three squares a day?
In her speech, the first lady made one small mention of the role of parents, saying that ultimately this was their responsibility. However, she barely drew breath before quickly adding "when our kids spend so much time in school, it's clear that we can't just leave it up to the parents."
Really? Why not? Why can't we expect a parent to serve their kids a bowl of cereal in the morning? Why can't we expect a parent to put a sandwich and an apple in a paper bag and to tuck a small snack into a child's backpack to give them a boost after school? Why can't we expect a parent to stock a pantry with healthy snacks and to prepare a simple dinner for their child? Most importantly, why can't we simply expect a parent to teach their children the values of proper nutrition, portion control, the importance of exercise, and self-regulation?
Undoubtedly, there are parents who fail at these simple tasks, and concern should be directed at that small subset of children whose parents really aren't capable of parenting. This of course was the original intent of the school food program. Started in 1946, the program was directed toward children who really needed this food. Today, over 30 million children eat a school provided meal, yet according to the U.S. Census, half that number - roughly 15 million children - currently live in poverty. As these numbers illustrate, these programs go far beyond simply providing food for poor children. They now also provide meals to working- and middle-class children whose parents, for whatever reason, don't pack their kids a lunch.
Relieving the program of these children - nearly 15 million - would allow schools to focus their efforts on those who actually need it. Instead, Michelle Obama sees the problem only being solved through government expansion. In her speech, the first lady said the problems of both obesity and malnutrition in this country "can be solved when we come together and provide our children with the nutritious food they need and deserve." These terms "we" and "our" are simply code for government being the better solver of your problems. You cannot be trusted to provide your child a nutritious meal because ultimately the government is smarter than you.
The issues of malnutrition and obesity are complicated. Michelle Obama has missed a golden opportunity to remind parents of their most basic responsibility. Instead, her child-nutrition bill will only harm children and families by further securing the trend of parents ceding this responsibility to the government.
- Julie Gunlock is a senior fellow at the Independent Women's Forum.