Politics & Policy

USDA Demands Holiday Snacks (and Parents) Be Removed from Schools

A gingerbread reindeer made by students of the San Ysidro Adult School Culinary Arts Program (Reuters: Mike Blake)
Federal mandates about what can and cannot be eaten on school property take the fun out of holidays and minimize the role of parents.

Starting next year, bringing a dozen homemade cupcakes to your child’s classroom to celebrate his or her birthday will be tantamount to lighting up a cigarette on the blacktop. Candy canes and gingerbread men people will be verboten during the school’s Christmas party winter celebration. And this spring, don’t expect any candy in the classroom; the Easter fuzzy bunny is strictly prohibited from entering school grounds. As for next year’s Halloween fall festivities: Kids should brace for water and carrots (hey, they’re orange!). What fun!

This is all good news to writer Bettina Elias Siegel, who recently covered this important school-based cookie crisis for a story in the New York Times. Siegel writes (my translation from alarmist gibberish to reasonable person is provided in brackets):

The season of junk-food-laden [fun and celebratory] classroom holiday parties is upon us. And while some [normal and reasonable] parents see all the cakes, candy, and salty snacks as a harmless indulgence during a festive season, others [certain joyless, Dickensian, wet blankets] object to any [any!] unhealthy food in the classroom.

Siegel goes on to provide reassurance by optimistically and without a hint of irony explaining that “the federal government is stepping in to help address the issue of classroom food.” Siegel then reports that starting in 2017, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will require all school districts that participate in school feeding programs (so, you know, all of them) to create a “nutritional standard” for all foods and beverages served in schools, including items brought to the school by parents and any food-based prizes given out by teachers.

I don’t expect Siegel or anyone who writes for the Times to understand the outright absurdity and hilarity that the feds are “here to help” with what’s being characterized as a holiday food crisis. But, no doubt millions of parents do appreciate how preposterous it is for a government agency (at any level) to spend one millisecond on this issue, considering the, oh, billion or so more important things on which they could be focused. Does any sensible person think this “holiday cookies disaster” requires federal (or state or local) intervention?

Sadly, the answer is a resounding “yes” for those in the Obama administration. In fact, the feds have been utterly obsessed with school-based food since President Obama took office. First, it was the school-lunch “reforms,” which passed Congress in 2010 and led to a massive, school-based food-waste problem (ignored by liberals and environmentalists) as well as a legion of hungry and generally angry and annoyed kids (ignored by the media) who were forced to eat this “healthier” food. Then there was the banning of anything resembling a snack in school vending machines. And then, the feds took away the higher-fat and higher-calorie “à la carte” items like mozzarella sticks and nachos sold in school cafeterias and replaced them with fruit cups, baked chips, and yogurt.

Of course, what didn’t happen was any sort of interaction with parents. At no point was there any discussion with or encouragement for parents to take a bigger role in their kids’ nutritional development. Parents weren’t encouraged to pack lunches, nor were they reminded that school-based food programs are for kids who live at or under the poverty line (so, in other words, some suggestion that maybe richer and middle-class parents should stop using the school food program would have been nice). Parents also weren’t informed of the significant body of scientific evidence that shows that parents who are more involved in their children’s eating habits and who practice certain parenting strategies (putting kids to bed earlier, limiting screen time, having family dinners) had children who were better able to maintain healthy weights. That’s useful information parents want to hear, yet that information was never provided.

The feds have been utterly obsessed with school-based food since President Obama took office.

That pattern is being repeated here. Instead, of encouraging parents to voice their concerns and try to change school holiday celebrations from food-based to game- or activity-based, the solution is always more government. It’s as if the folks at the USDA (and the New York Times) have no concept of how schools and parents interact. As parents know, most teachers and schools respond to parent concerns. Thus, encouraging such communication between parents and teachers would be a far simpler way to deal with the so-called “season of junk food” than insisting that schools create rigid nutritional standards.

#related#Sadly, schools will be required to develop these new standards, which will only complicate matters and take parents out of the picture. Consider that instead of going through the process of developing all new nutrition standards, many schools will simply opt for the USDA’s already approved “Smart Snack Rules.” These rules actually prohibit parents from bringing in homemade food items, ostensibly to reduce the risk of allergens (because, again, the government doesn’t trust kids, parents, and teachers to be able to communicate about such risks). Never mind that this means that the very people who crow about the scourge of processed foods (including the New York Times’ own food writer Mark Bittman) are now pushing rules that allow only processed food in the classroom.

If we really want kids to be healthy, we need to detangle food from schools and encourage parents to be more involved in what their kids consume. And if your school is really having a holiday cookie crisis, I know a few kids who’d be happy to help out. Address provided on request.

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