The Subtext of School Lunches

Jan. 27, 2020

Controversy over school lunch menus represents bigger political issues.

Anyone who pays attention to politics knows that there’s a subtext, or a larger meaning, to certain political controversies. This debate over a new road is really about suburban sprawl; that proposed ban on leaf-burning symbolizes the hostility between longtime town residents and newcomers.

Into this category we must place the current tiff over efforts to loosen up some of the nutrition-related regulations on school lunch menus.

Earlier this month, the USDA proposed to give schools more leeway in menu choices, mostly by not being so strict about nutrition. Fruit (although not overall calories) could be cut in half at breakfast; French fries and other potato preparations would now count as vegetables. USDA and its supporters claim this will save schools money and reduce waste, since lots of kids supposedly throw away their green veggies. Opponents say it’s just a way to cut costs, and cater to potato-producing states, at the expense of children’s health.

Controversy in school lunch regulations is nothing new; readers of a certain age will remember the Reagan administration’s proposal to have ketchup declared a vegetable. That was withdrawn after a public furor, but it was cited by some of Reagan’s critics as symbolic of his supposedly hard-hearted approach (he cut school lunch funding by $1.5 billion in his first year in office).

This time there’s a more pointed subtext. School nutrition was a particular concern of former first lady Michelle Obama, as part of her larger crusade for children’s health. The regulations being reversed were put into place as part of her initiative; the reversal was announced on her birthday. One interpretation is that this was pure spite, an expression of President Trump’s contempt for the Obamas. Another is that Trump is executing his campaign promise to roll back “nanny-state” regulations. The only thing rational people can hope is that actual facts and data will combine with common sense to guide decisions like this, with political backbiting pushed to the sidelines.

Personally, I would first like to see schools everywhere stop this nonsense about making eight-year-olds manage the “credits” on their “lunch cards,” and dumping their lunches into the trash when they don’t. When small children are in your care, custody and control for seven hours, you feed them. This is expected of the most dimwitted babysitter; I don’t see why schools in the world’s richest country should be any different.