December 20 2012
School Lunch: Should the Government Be Feeding Schoolchildren Lunch? (Debate)
Join the debate and answer the question on Huffington Post: Should the government should not be in the business of providing school lunch?
Most kids are picky about what they eat, at any age. Even before they can speak they can make facial expressions that indicate, in no uncertain terms, "Get that disgusting pablum out of my face."
Now public school children and teens are rebelling at the healthy food they feel is being shoved at them on a government spoon. When calorie limits were set for lunch menus by Congress earlier this fall, you'd think the feds had passed a national child starvation bill. And they don't like any better the new nutritional standards that came into effect earlier this year, which saw their favorite junky items replaced with healthier choices such as carrots and spinach.
Is there any winning with the some 31-million American kids who must participate daily in the National School Lunch Program?
As part of the Huffington Post's ongoing "School Lunch Project," we reached out to two experts on government lunch policy -- with decidedly opposing views -- as to whether schools should, in the end, be responsible for feeding our children.
Post by Julie Gunlock, Director of Women for Food Freedom project at the Independent Women's Forum
Feeding a child is the most basic parental responsibility.
Yet today, more and more parents are ceding this responsibility to the federal government by allowing their children to participate in the federal school lunch program--which in recent years has expanded far beyond lunch. In fact, in today's schools, kids are being served breakfast, lunch, dinner and after-school snacks. Some schools even run summer feeding programs.
Originally designed to provide poor and undernourished children a free meal, today, 31 million students receive school meals, and according to the Congressional Research Service, about 40% purchase those meals at full price. In other words, the federal school lunch program has evolved into a program serving not only poor children, but children whose parents, for whatever reason, have decided not to prepare a home-packed meal for their school-bound child.
These parents should realize that the government isn't succeeding in getting kids to eat particularly healthy meals. In fact, most school lunches contain food high in calories and low in nutritional value (this appears to be a persistent problem despite the First Lady's school lunch reforms), which suggests that government shares at least some of the blame for the considerable spike in childhood obesity rates in America. After all, greater reliance on the school lunch program tracks the rise in childhood obesity.
More troubling, greater government involvement is more likely to undermine, rather than to help, efforts to improve child health. Studies show that a diminished parental role in a child's nutritional development has real consequences. And that's exactly what happens when government takes on the role of primary food-provider for school-age children.
Politicians who really want to "solve" the childhood obesity problem might want to take note. One encouraging study on childhood obesity conducted in 2010 by Ohio State University found children are less likely to develop obesity if they do three simple things at home: eat dinner with their families more than five times a week, get at least 10.5 hours of sleep per night, and watch two or fewer hours of television on weekdays.
The most remarkable thing about this study is that it found that these routines reduced the likelihood of obesity even among children at high risk of the condition (for reasons like having a family history of obesity, being raised in a low-income household or growing up in a single-parent home).
More recently, an Australian study examined 165 overweight children and randomly assigned them to one of three programs: an exercise program, a parent-controlled diet program, or a program combining both diet and exercise. After two years, all children experienced weight loss but the report noted that "the greatest effects were achieved through inclusion of a parent-centered diet program..."
These studies suggest that the key to controlling childhood obesity really has little to do with schools or government-run feeding programs. Rather, the most important part of the solution is hands-on parenting. You wouldn't know this listening to Washington, which seems to see expanding the school lunch program and greater federal involvement in our kids' daily meals as the primary path to greater health.
One excellent example of how more government meddling into school menus actually results in kids getting less-healthy food played out on the ABC series "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution" -- a reality show documenting British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's exasperating attempts to improve the School Lunch Program. Just before serving the healthy meal he had lovingly prepared -- consisting of a vegetable pasta dish, baked chicken, and a fruit cup -- the school administrator scolded Oliver for not having the federal government-required amount of fruits and vegetables on the tray. As a result, french fries were added in order to bring it back into compliance. A speechless Oliver was then told that the U.S. Department of Agriculture considers french fries as a vegetable (post school lunch reforms, french fries are still considered a vegetable).
Yet the problem goes far beyond identifying truly healthy fare. Federal policymakers should also consider restoring the school lunch program to its original purpose, so that only those students who absolutely need school lunches receive them.
If this country is going to get serious about childhood obesity, we need to detangle the federal government from the food needs of our children and get back to parents practicing some pretty basic skills: feeding their children.