Politics & Policy

School-Lunch Activism

Michelle Obama visits a Maryland elementary school in 2010. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
To serve a green agenda, Washington tries to dictate menus to school cafeterias that can’t afford them.

School cafeterias have been serving up lunches without political fanfare for generations, but Michelle Obama has upset that applecart. The federal government’s new nutritional standards for school lunches — championed by the first lady as part of her crusade against sweets and soda – are creating headaches for schools, which are losing money on more expensive ingredients as children throw their federally mandated “healthy” meals away. Mrs. Obama is now embroiled in a war of words with the House GOP, which is attempting to rescue school districts from this financial boondoggle with waivers.

If another federal board has its way, however, the school-lunch cash crunch may look like small potatoes next to a broader set of activist dietary standards. The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, a joint venture of HHS and the USDA, is currently meeting to set the federal government’s official nutritional recommendations, which quietly affect how millions of Americans eat. This year, the panel consists entirely of career academics, several of whom have proposed radical ideas that suggest they’re more concerned with fringe environmental causes than with sound food science and common sense.

Just as the first lady’s childhood-obesity project is affecting the budgets of public schools — requiring them to buy more-expensive “healthy” food regardless of whether the district can afford it — the DGAC’s work will have far-reaching implications. The committee’s recommendations influence the menus for cafeterias in schools, military bases, prisons, federal workplaces, and other places where a government bureaucracy is responsible for serving food. The government also considers the DGAC’s guidelines when calculating food benefits under SNAP (food stamps), WIC, and other welfare programs for low-income Americans.

When federal nutritional standards are improperly calculated, the negative effects are twofold. First, as the failing school-lunch experiment is proving, federal guidelines affect purchasing decisions at the state and local level, and when localities are required to buy more-expensive “sustainable” food, they’re forced to spend tax money they don’t always have. Second, the people most directly affected by the DGAC guidelines — students, mothers with children, and the poor — are often the most vulnerable in society, and guidelines that put a green agenda over their health can leave them at risk of malnutrition.

So it’s crucial that the members of the committee focus on applying food science — determining the right amount of calories, fat, protein, and other nutrients a healthy person should consume each day, and what foods people should eat to acquire these nutrients — and not let tangential concerns derail them.

Unfortunately, those tangential concerns have often been the primary focus of the DGAC’s meetings, which have included debates over the effects of farmers’ markets on sustainability and praise for Michael Bloomberg’s bans on trans fats and large soft drinks. Some of the professors on the committee have also shown hostility toward meat, advocating that we switch en masse to a “plant-based diet” for what appear to be purely political reasons. If the committee decides to recommend lower meat consumption for reasons that have more to do with personal preference than with food science, children, soldiers, and millions of other Americans could unknowingly be subjected to an unbalanced diet.

Basic nutrition isn’t a joking matter, but from the first lady to radical academics on a little-known committee, Washington elites seem happy to play with our food supply to suit their utopian visions. The government needs to get back to sound food science, and to supplying its cafeterias with square meals at sensible prices.

— Erik Telford is senior vice president at the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity.

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