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View From the Hill: Who knows your kid better?

By Grace Boatright, National Grange Legislative Director (View From The Hill Blog 10/9/12)

  OCTOBER 10, 2012 --

Michelle Obama’s crowning legislative achievement, ironically named the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act has caused quite a stir throughout America’s public schools where kids are finding themselves…well…hungry. The whole thing started as part of Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign that aims to end child obesity. However, it has somehow spiraled into new school lunch restrictions that are aggravating just about everyone involved in the process, including the kids, the parents, the cafeteria workers, and the states who fund the schools. Nobody seems to like it and nobody is happy about having to implement these changes.

Under the new law, there are calorie caps placed on school lunches, as well as restrictions about what school cafeterias can and cannot serve to the kids. The calorie caps for meals are up to 650 for kindergarten through fifth grade, 700 for sixth through eighth grade, and 850 for high school. To be fair, these are the same numbers recommended by the Mayo Clinic, a place I highly respect. Restrictions have also been placed on the amount of high-calorie and high-fat foods that can be served, while fruits and vegetables do not share in those restrictions. While that sounds great, the law also expands the variety of fruits and vegetables that must be served, including things like kale and collard greens. As you can expect, many of those things are ending up in the trashcan instead of students’ mouths.

Some measures have already been taken to combat this new mandate, including proposed legislation from Representative King (R-IA) to repeal the whole thing. However, student-led protests over these new mandates are popping up everywhere, from New Jersey all the way to Wisconsin. Football players at Mukwonago High School in Wisconsin led a boycott of the new lunch rules by packing their own lunches instead and got 70% of the 830 students to participate. The entire Plum Borough school district in Pennsylvania also led a protest by having students pack their own lunches. Parsippany Hills High School in New Jersey held a meeting to discuss a potential strike over the whole thing.

However, the most elaborate protest of all has come in the form of a video entitled “We are Hungry,” meant to be a satire on the video “We are Young.” The video shows students being hungry, falling asleep in class, and failing in sports. It also shows the inevitable result of kids going across the street to convenient stores and fast food places to get the food they no longer receive at school. To see the video, click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2IB7NDUSBOo

In response to the outbreak of protests, USDA officials commented that the problem is really with the students and not the restrictions themselves, advising that students who are left feeling hungry, or who do not care for what is served may need to adjust their eating habits over time. The federal government telling me to “adjust” is about the most infuriating thing I’ve ever heard. This is a democracy. WE tell the government what to adjust, not the other way around.

While I agree that childhood obesity is a problem, a mandated restriction on the size of lunches absolutely cannot fulfill the needs of every student. For example, what about a football player who probably burns over 4,000 calories a day during two practices? He is going to require far more than 850 calories for lunch before he heads off to football practice after school. Brandon Faris, a high school senior at Parsippany Hills High School said it best; “If somebody’s obese why should someone like me who’s not obese have to suffer…”

It’s also worth noting that other actions taken to curb childhood obesity haven’t worked either, including the recent ban on junk food in school vending machines. I’m engaged to a man with two children, one of them being in high school. I recently attended a play put on by the school’s theater department and was very interested to see that every single vending machine I passed still contained soda, chips, candy bars, and everything else that is supposed to be “removed” from public schools. When I asked my would-be stepson about this, he replied that more kids get food from the vending machines than they do from the cafeteria. He also told me that gym and physical education are no longer required classes. Wouldn’t tackling these problems first be a smarter solution?

Thankfully, my stepson lives with me full time and gets adequate nutrition at home. But what about the other kids that are not so privileged who live in homes where dinner consists of leftover Taco Bell or worse- nothing at all? This new school lunch mandate is especially harmful to kids living in poor areas who heavily depend on the breakfast and lunch meals they receive at school for their basic nutrition. The very purpose of this law was to prevent obesity and provide kids with the nutrition they require to stay healthy and focused. Not only has the law been counterproductive to this effort, but it has also cost schools thousands of dollars in food that has been thrown away at the end of the day because the kids won’t eat it.

Frankly, like every other endeavor taken on by the federal government, this started with good intentions but has turned into a dysfunctional, expensive, nonsensical, one-size-fits-all mandate that is now doing more harm than good. Local school boards, with the input of parents, know far better than the federal government what their kids should eat and how much they should eat. The federal government needs to stay out of this completely and allow local communities to make these very personal decisions for themselves.

-Grace Boatright
National Grange Legislative Director

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