Should Congress trash Michelle Obama’s lunch program?
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Fewer kids are buying lunch at school, despite the first lady’s best efforts. Since the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) of 2010, Michelle ObamaMichelle ObamaVideo surfaces of Michelle Obama at Beyonce’s birthday party Budowsky: Dems need council of war The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE’s premiere program to fight childhood obesity, participation in the school lunch program has declined by nearly 4 percent. Some schools have lost revenue due to the decline in participation and are choosing to opt out of the program entirely. With the HHFKA scheduled for reauthorization this month, it’s worth asking: Is the program is worth its $15 billion costs or is there is a better option?  

The HHFKA program provides funding for school meals that comply with federal nutritional standards. And therein lies the problem. The program’s one-size-fits-all nutritional standards, which are applied to each day’s meals, make it difficult for schools to create appetizing meals kids actually want to eat.

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Decreasing childhood obesity is a laudable goal. It defies a simple solution, but The HHFKA attempts to address the issue by mandating that schools meals align with government nutritional recommendations to qualify for subsidies.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of schools in the nation complying with federal nutrition standards has significantly increased, as they serve more fruit, vegetables, and whole grains, lower-fat dairy, and lean protein, while reducing sodium and sugar content. This sounds like great progress, but it doesn’t tell us if kids are actually eating healthier as a result.

Overall, childhood obesity has remained fairly stable between 2008 and 2012, though not evenly across all age groups. Obesity among children between two and five years old declined by 3.7 percent from 2010 to 2012, while it increased by 2.1 percent among kids between 12 and 19 years old. However, these trends were well underway before the implementation of the HHFKA. What does this mean? It means obesity is an immensely complicated and long-term condition that takes years and potentially hundreds of genetic and environmental factors to manifest. A broad-brush approach will not address it.

The HHFKA takes a similarly blunt approach to allocating funding. A provision in the law allows entire school districts—instead of single families—to apply for free meals. As a result, some kids who might otherwise pay for their lunch or breakfast have access to federally funded meals, while some needier kids go without. For example, all of Chicago’s 400,000 public schools offer free breakfast and lunches to students, regardless of their need.

Then there’s also food waste. Just because kids are being served more veggies and fruits, that doesn’t mean they’re eating them. Researchers from the University of Vermont captured images of students’ lunch trays after leaving the lunch line and selecting their meals and again as they disposed of what was left on their tray. They found that after the implementation of HHFKA there were more fruits and vegetables on children’s’ food trays, as required by the law. They also found that the amount of food students threw away increased by 56 percent.

Are school lunches healthier now than they were in 2010? Probably, but it’s questionable if that has actually improved students’ health. The federal government is not a good nutritionist. Simply putting apples on students’ lunch trays doesn’t teach them good eating habits. But a different approach might actually help students eat healthier in a more cost-efficient and effective way. What might work better is to put control back into the hands of individual schools. The School Nutrition Association is lobbying for more relaxed nutrition standards to let schools determine who qualifies for the free food programs and decide how they meet nutritional standards. For example, instead of requiring each meal to adhere to strict nutritional guidelines, schools could aim to meet weekly or even monthly goals. By all means, let’s encourage students to eat more fruits and vegetables. But foisting food choices on them will only lead to billions of dollars tossed into the garbage bin, along with those fruits and vegetables.

Minton is a fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.