Students' reports of "mystery meat" and other complaints about the suspect quality of school cafeteria food are nothing new, but the outcry has gone to a whole new level since the introduction of the federal government?s new school lunch health standards in 2010. As a new U.S. Government Accountability report finds, more students are rejecting the new standards altogether — and voting with their (parents') wallets.
Since the standards imposed by the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, championed by first lady Michelle Obama, 1.4 million kids nationwide have dropped out of the school lunch program.
"Nationwide, participation in the National School Lunch Program has declined in recent years after having increased steadily for more than a decade," the GAO concluded.
The school lunch requirements, which include strict limits on sugar and sodium content and mandate the use of whole grains, have sparked a backlash among students, leading to large amounts of food waste, and encouraged many to stop buying lunches altogether. Twitter postings of students' pictures of their mostly empty lunch plates and strange, unappetizing and pathetic-looking meal offerings have gone viral under the sarcastic tag #ThanksMichelleObama.
The requirements have also increased the cost of the program, straining school district budgets. "School districts are being forced to financially subsidize meals at the expense of educational programs," the School Nutrition Association and School Superintendents Association lamented in a letter last month to congressional leaders. The regulations are "forcing school districts to absorb $1.2 billion in additional food and labor costs in FY 2015 alone," they added.
The lunch regulations have even prompted kids to establish campus black markets by selling salt, pepper and sugar to classmates.
Public education may be failing many of our children, but at least the school lunch program is teaching them about economics — and government's heavy-handed paternalism. The nearly 4,700 pages of school lunch regulations issued just from January 2012 through April 2015 are indicative of a government far too powerful and bloated with bureaucracy. That is a lesson we all should learn.
REPRINTED FROM THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER