The Corner

Three Squares a Day, Courtesy of the Federal Government

On Friday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced plans to expand the child-dinner program. Already operational in 13 states and the District of Columbia, the program will now be available in all 50 states, mostly in urban areas.

What — you weren’t aware of the child-dinner program? Thought your kids could only get breakfast and lunch? Well, put away your apron, because now your kids can get three squares courtesy of the federal government and your tax dollars.

USDA undersecretary Kevin Concannon announced the expansion last week, saying the goal “is to make sure that kids are getting adequately fed and getting nutritious food.” But the Obama administration isn’t just hoping to help a few underfed kids. Asked last year about the administration’s goals with regards to child nutrition, Concannon revealed a much more ambitious agenda, saying “our goal is to provide a systematic and a reliable way for children across the country to get adequate nutrition 365 days a year.”

That really sums it up. The Obama administration seeks to feed this nation’s children all year round — not just when school is in session. Another example of this year-round feeding frenzy is the $350 million Congress appropriated last year for the Summer Food Service Program, which provides nearly 2 million children with up to three meals per day during the summer months.

We shouldn’t be surprised to see these programs expand. The Obama administration firmly believes the government can best solve the problems of obesity and so-called “food insecurity” in this country. But government feeding programs — which provide children with high-calorie and overly processed foods — are at least in part to blame for the rise in obesity since the 1970s (although it’s important to note that obesity rates among children haven’t increased in ten years). Michelle Obama’s much-ballyhooed Child Nutrition Bill, which just passed in December and was aimed at improving the quality of food offered through these programs, only provides 6 cents additional funding per meal — that’s hardly going to make a big dent in the overall nutritional value of these school meals.

And judging from the new program guidelines issued this week by the USDA (the first update since 1995), it doesn’t look like a whole lot has changed. While the new guidelines do require lower-calorie meals to be served at breakfast and lunch and require less carbohydrates and more fruits and vegetables, the panel (made up of nutritionists) chose not to limit sugar. Nor did it prohibit what many of these school lunch reformers consider liquid evil — chocolate milk and juices, both of which contain a lot of sugar.

It’s likely that the only thing these new guidelines will lead to is more wasted food. While requiring less starchy vegetables like potatoes, the guidelines call for more leafy green and orange vegetables — which kids overwhelmingly detest. In fact, a 1996 GAO report on what food went to waste in school cafeterias found the two most uneaten items were cooked and raw vegetables and salads.

The solution to the country’s child-nutrition problems can’t be found in school lunches or any federally funded child-meal program. The only real solution is to encourage parents to take greater control of what their children are eating. But unfortunately, the only encouragement Michelle Obama and the officials at the USDA seem to be offering parents is to enroll them in these federal programs.

Critics of these programs understand the need for more focus on children’s nutrition, but they see the solution as encouraging parents to take more interest in their children’s food decisions — much like the first lady did with her own children. When her daughters’ weights started to creep up, Michelle Obama didn’t stomp down to their school to inspect what they were eating for lunch; she took steps to become more a more engaged parent. She has said on several occasions that she switched them to lower-fat milk, gave them healthier snacks, and made them turn off the television.

And Mrs. Obama has even talked about the importance of family dinners. In a speech last summer, the first lady talked about the role this tradition played in her own home growing up. She explained that when she and her brother sat down for dinner “we ate what we were served. My mother never cared whether me or my brother liked what was on our plates. We either ate what was there or we didn’t eat. It was as simple as that. We never ate anything fancy, but the portion sizes were reasonable and there were rarely seconds — maybe for your father, but not for you. And there was always a vegetable on the plate. . . . There was no expectation of dessert after our meals. And we didn’t dream of asking for soda or pop. That was for special occasions.”

These are powerful words from the first lady, and she should encourage behavior similar to that of her mother and herself. She shouldn’t be encouraging the abandonment of these responsibilities to the government.

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