Brief Note on School Breakfasts

by Reihan Salam

While I understand why school breakfast programs have great appeal, a recent New York Times article by Michael Grynbaum reminds me of why I’m an instinctive skeptic when it comes to expanding government authority: 

The city’s health department hit the pause button after a study found that the Breakfast in the Classroom program, now used in 381 of the city’s 1,750 schools, was problematic because some children might be “inadvertently taking in excess calories by eating in multiple locations” — in other words, having a meal at home, or snacking on the way to school, then eating again in school.

But this week, the City Council speaker, Christine C. Quinn, pushed back against those claims, joining children’s advocacy groups in demanding that New York follow other cities in making in-classroom breakfast available at many more schools with children from low-income families. They say hunger and poor nutrition are serious problems in a city where more than a quarter of residents under 18 are below the poverty line.

So what exactly are children being fed?

“At school, it’s usually a muffin, a cheese stick and juice,” she said, adding, “I’m not so happy about the juice.”

Consider how this might relate to self-reported hunger. I’m one of those devotees of the (somewhat controversial) science writer Gary Taubes, who argues that “diabesity” is caused in large part by the dramatic increase in carbohydrate and sugar intake in the American diet in recent decades. And this dramatic increase flowed in part, Taubes argues, from a misplaced concern about the consumption of fat-rich protein. To get a better sense of Taubes’s thesis, I recommend reading Why We Get Fat or listening to his interview with Russ Roberts. To oversimplify Taubes’s story, public health authorities embraced an unsound hypothesis regarding the origins of metabolic disease and in doing so greatly exacerbated the underlying public health problem. Robert Lustig of UCSF has been making the case that increased sugar intake is the chief culprit in the epidemic of metabolic disease, and Tabes has written extensively on Lustig’s claims.

If Taubes and Lustig are anywhere close to being right, subsidized breakfasts that consist of muffins and juice represent a pretty serious threat to public health. Moreover, excessive carbohydrate consumption might actually exacerbate the self-reported hunger problem. Students seem satiated immediately after completing a carbohydrate-rich meal, yet this effect rarely lasts. The following is from Why We Get Fat:

The hunger that accompanies our attempts to eat fewer calories is an unavoidable physiological phenomenon; the craving for carbohydrates is more like an addiction. It is the consequence, at least in part, of insulin resistance and the chronically elevated levels of insulin that go with it, and thus caused by the carbohydrates in the first place.

Sugars are a special case. As I discussed earlier, sugar appears to be addictive in the brain in the same way in which cocaine, nicotine, and heroin are. This suggests that the relatively intense cravings for sugar—a sweet tooth—may be explained by the intensity of the dopamine secretion in the brain when we consume sugar.

So what are our public health authorities doing? They are (literally) loading up small children with carbohydrates and sugar. Parents who are conscientious about limiting their children’s intake of such foods find themselves in a bind. Because these foods are quite literally addictive, small children will have a hard time resisting them when offered.

Note that part of the reason why programs like this persist is that they create opportunities for private firms that sell the food in question. 

I realize that not everyone agrees with Taubes, Lustig, et al. Perhaps it really is sensible to feed small children a diet rich in sugar and carbohydrates. And in fairness, I imagine a protein-rich diet would also prove controversial, not least because it won’t suit all children or it might prompt religious or ethical or other objections. (That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t support it, however.) Such are the challenges of creating one-size-fits-all public health programs in a diverse society. To be explicit about my own bias, I think that New York city’s public schools are perpetuating and exacerbating a decades-long public health crisis.

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.