By Robert Sanchez, JMI Policy Director
Who knows best when it comes to deciding what America’s schoolchildren ought to eat? Should their parents decide? Apparently not; in fact, some Chicago schools have barred pupils from bringing lunches from home.Could it be school cafeterias’ managers? After all, they’re presumably informed about nutrition and aware of the pupils’ tastes as reflected in how much of what’s served ends up in the kids’ tummies and how much in the garbage.They’re also aware of how ethnic and regional preferences play a role in what kids eat or toss. In this large and diverse nation, tastes may range from ham, grits, and turnips to salmon, brown rice, and broccoli.As it turns out, however, all wisdom on what our kids should eat evidently resides in Washington, D.C. That’s where Congress passed “The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act” rewriting the rules for the meals that millions of kids are served each day. Consider just a few of the details, as reported in Education Week:Breakfast: Every day all students must be offered a full cup of fruit and a meat or meat substitute, but no tofu or starchy vegetables – potatoes, corn, peas, or lima beans. The feds also decree a calorie range: 350-500 for elementary schools, 400-550 for middle schools, and 450-600 for high school kids, whether they’re willowy would-be ballerinas or stocky aspiring linebackers.Lunch: High school pupils must be offered a full cup of fruit and a full cup of veggies every day. And, the feds stipulate, at least once a week they must be offered a half cup of dark green veggies, a half cup of orange veggies, and a half cup of legumes.The projected additional cost to school districts over the next five years is $6.8 billion – an estimate concocted by the federal government, which is not known for accurate forecasts.Then there’s the lingering question of whether kids all over this diverse land will actually consume what the feds prescribe. As Education Week reported, some food supervisors doubt it.Said one: “Bok choy? Watercress? That’s going to be different. When we think of kids trying new vegetables, the first time, they just look at it. The second time, they smell it. And the third or fourth time, maybe, they eat it.” Added another: “I think much of the additional produce will end up in the garbage instead of students’ stomachs.”Worse, whenever decisions shift to Washington from the levels closest to the people, lobbyists for large special interests get more involved. Consider, for instance, a revealing reaction from the National Potato Council.The Council naturally hates the rule limiting starches. Mind you, the spud folks have no principled objection to federal mandates. Indeed, they want the feds to require four half-cup servings of potatoes a week at lunchtime and to allow them at breakfast, too.This bill passed the Senate on August 5, arguably as an election-year lifeline for its sole sponsor, the politically vulnerable Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-AR. Evidently it didn’t help; she lost in November, 58 percent to 37 percent.Undaunted, the House passed her bill on December 2 — during the lame duck session after an election in which voters arguably had rejected this kind of federal meddling. House Democrats supported it 247 to 17; House Republicans opposed it 153 to 4. President Obama signed it into law on December 13.What this bill illustrates is how the feds parlay a bit of financial aid into a lot of federal control. That’s not unusual; a new Government Accountability Office report lists 151 K-12 programs housed in 20 different federal agencies at an annual cost of $55.6 billion.Yet federal aid – at least that portion not borrowed abroad — is simply money taken from within the 50 states, sent to Washington’s money laundry to be shrunk, then returned with strings – or chains — attached.Now, as President Obama often says, “Let me be clear.” Nobody wants children to go hungry — although it could be noted that feeding children should be primarily a parental responsibility and that low-income families receive food stamps to help.Nor are these nutritional standards bad per se – especially given the epidemic of childhood obesity. Rather, as the feds’ flirtations with gridlock show, it’s simply folly to believe that all wisdom emanates from Washington or that local folks can’t devise sensible standards themselves — without the mandates from congressional lame ducks.