Healthy Lunches, Unhealthy Politics

Aug. 10, 2020

Better school lunches really do help poor kids lose weight.

When the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act was signed into law in 2010, it was over a lot of opposition, mostly because of who was behind it. Michelle Obama made providing healthier school lunches her signature initiative, and did she ever get blowback for it. “Nanny state” was one of the nicer terms thrown around.

Now comes a Harvard study showing that she may have had a point.

The study looked at kids 10 to 17 in the years before and after the law passed. Basically, it says that the effect on the entire population was negligible – but among low-income children, obesity dropped 47%. That’s because many of them eat both lunch and breakfast at school. “If you think of it almost like a dose, the kids in poverty are receiving a larger dose of these meals,” one of the Harvard researchers said.

This is significant, and not just because of that eye-popping 47% figure. The nutritional mandates in the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act are in danger of being rolled back by a combination of circumstances and politics.

The politics, of course, are from the Trump administration, as an expression of its general distaste for both the “nanny state” and the Obamas. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue tried to extend the deadline for sodium reduction, allow flavored milk and cut the whole-grain requirement from 100% to 50%. A federal judge slapped that down, but USDA has proposed other changes, including allowing French fries to count as vegetables, lowering the fruit requirement for breakfast, and allowing more “à la carte” items – which critics call a back door for junk food.

And the COVID situation has made this situation, along with countless others, worse. Many school districts are operating meal programs to help feed children while schools are closed; USDA has allowed waivers from the enhanced nutritional standards for them. Which is fine, except that you have to wonder if they’ll ever put those standards back in place.

Read this excellent Civil Eats article for a full explanation of the situation.

The cliché is that hard cases lead to bad laws. Maybe so, but we shouldn’t let them lead to the dismantling of good ones.

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