Politics & Policy

Food for (Second) Thought

There's no such thing as a free snack, either.

All government schemes deserve suspicion, but especially those that sound nice. This is particularly the case when it comes to feeding children.

This year’s farm bill — whether the Senate or the House version — contains enough junk to infuriate everyone but its beneficiaries. However, one program has eluded criticism, both in Congress and in the administration. Everyone seems to like the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP). Launched in 2002 as a pilot program in five states, it provides free fruit and vegetable snacks to schoolchildren.

Once the project began, “amazing things started to happen,” according to a report by the Produce for Better Health Foundation. For instance, did you know that, once students were given free fruits and vegetables, students “ate more fruits and vegetables”? In addition, a principal is quoted as saying, “This program has provided each teacher the opportunity to be seen as more human, with personal feelings, likes and dislikes.” Thanks to vegetables, teachers no longer appear to be in a vegetative state to their students. If that’s not enough reason to endorse the program, I don’t know what is.

Nowadays, children no longer suffer from lack of food but from too much of the wrong kind. Obesity is the peril du jour. Now that overconsumption has replaced hunger as the biggest threat to children’s health, the federal government wants to expand so that children won’t.

Both versions of the farm bill would extend FFVP to every state in the country. The USDA estimated that expanding the snack program nationwide, to every school and every student, as many members of Congress wish, would cost $4.5 billion — just under the entire cost of the separate national school-lunch program in 1995 ($5 billion).

The FFVP is the latest in a series of nutrition programs launched by the government. The Associated Press investigated 57 of these programs, which cost over a billion dollars annually, and found “mostly failure.” The reason should be obvious to anyone who’s ever been younger than twelve: Kids don’t like broccoli, even if it’s free.

Students throw away fruits and vegetables more than any other food, according to a 2002 GAO report. Wasted food costs the government $600 million every year, with fruits and vegetables accounting for 42 percent of that waste. And yet, the government wants to spend more on fruits and veggies.

In public schools, the government gets to decide what goes in people’s heads as well as what goes inside their stomachs, and it is gradually strengthening its monopoly over the latter.

In January 2001, the Clinton administration tried to ban “competitive foods” from school cafeterias. That month, the USDA sent a report to Congress boasting that schools were meeting federal nutrition standards before noting that “students do not always select these nutritious school meals.” Vending machines were to blame, because they gave students too many options, most of them bad. The government despises competitive foods not only because they are innutritious but also because they are, in a word, competitive.

To comply with federal nutrition guidelines, many schools have taken drastic measures. It got so bad in Texas that parents forced the legislature to add a “Safe Cupcake Amendment” to the state’s nutrition program after their kids weren’t allowed to eat cupcakes on their birthdays. A high school in Alabama has banned Milo’s Famous Sweet Tea. In New Jersey, absolutely no form of candy or soda is permitted on school grounds, much like switchblades and heroin. In Kentucky, fruit juice is okay but only if it is 100-percent fruit juice. Sunny Delight, tough luck.

As students’ commercial options dwindle, the FFVP is supposed to provide healthy substitutes. The logic behind this arrangement is tempting: If you don’t give kids free healthy goodies, you’re implicitly giving them obesity and associated diseases. Presented in these terms, the choice is easy for most politicians, who’d rather create another federal program than be seen as harming children.

It’s interesting that many of today’s health advocates also happen to be produce farmers, who no doubt see in schools a huge market for their products. Testifying before the Senate Agriculture Committee last year, Jennifer Euwer Hunt, an Oregon farmer, said the FFVP not only benefited children but “also added to the health of an industry,” namely her own. “It is important for people to eat a variety of fruit and vegetables including the pears and cherries that I grow, and this program gets kids started on that road early in life.”

At the heart of school meals is an inescapable conflict of interest. Since the Depression, public schools have served as dumping grounds for surplus farm products bought by the government. The school-lunch program exists for two reasons: (a) to feed children and (b) “to encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities and other food.” Children must not only be fed but be fed the right things, as determined not by their parents but by their Uncle Sam. Accordingly, the feds have resolved, as a payoff to produce farmers and in the name of “the children,” to nudge students toward a more pear-laden diet.

There’s nothing wrong with eating pears, but that’s just the problem: It’s completely uncontroversial, which is why no one bothers to ask if the government should be promoting it. It’s easy to exploit children for their own good, and the government loves nothing more than to save kids from themselves.

Government programs, like the children they feed, don’t stop growing upon conception. In 1947, the national school-lunch program cost $70 million; last year it cost $8.2 billion. When President Nixon threatened to trim federal school lunch subsidies in 1971, the House voted 353-0 to force him to nix the plan. When Republicans tried to do the same in 1995, the New York Times said the idea was “gratuitously mean.”

If anything, being gratuitously nice is worse. There’s no limit to the force-fed benevolence on the federal dime. Each farm bill is more bloated than the preceding one, and there’s no reason to think this trend won’t continue. The government keeps dishing out second helpings to overstuffed children, and people are too polite to admit that both sides are already full of it.

Windsor Mann is a writer living in Washington, D.C.

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