Complaints over the food in school cafeterias aren’t exactly new. The rare kid who enjoys eating in the cafeteria has always been considered odd by his peers. Trash cans behind cafeterias have always been filled with food left over by young diners.
So what’s different this year, when school lunch complaints are making headlines around the country?
Two things, really. One is that school nutrition has become a political issue. The other is that students have more effective ways to complain.
Taking the second factor first, Facebook and YouTube postings include a steady flow of pictures, videos and insults about school cafeteria food. They show images of their lunch trays to prove that they’re not getting enough to eat or that what they’re getting is unappetizing, or both. Kansas students, with help from teachers, have even produced a parody music video, "We Are Hungry."
Heck, if I’d thought of such a thing back in the 1960s, when I was eating daily in the Arkansas State College cafeteria, my audience would have been severely limited. Today students can attract the attention of legislators and even congressmen.
Thus, U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, convened what he called a Nutrition Summit last week in the Nettleton School District Two panels of school superintendents and a couple of parents discussed the impact of the Health, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.
The consensus was that the new guidelines established under the law don’t leave all children hunger-free and add to the schools’ food costs. Then, of course, there’s more paperwork.
Most of the schools represented at the summit provide free or reduced-price lunches of at least half their students so their complaints, if well-founded, are significant.
The intent of the legislation is certainly worthy. Nationally and in Arkansas, one in every three children between the ages of 6 and 19 is either overweight or obese. Our state made a strong effort to deal with the problem in 2003, when then-Gov. Mike Huckabee pushed through a law outlawing junk-food vending machines in elementary schools and requiring schools to measure and report students’ body mass indexes.
Childhood obesity often leads to diabetes, heart disease and other serious health problems.
The question then becomes: Can we combat this national problem through the federal government? It then becomes a political issue.
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was championed by first lady Michelle Obama as part of her campaign to advocate healthier lifestyles for children. Its chief sponsor was former U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, then chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.
The legislation was at first noncontroversial. In fact, in May 2010 it passed the U.S. Senate by unanimous consent, meaning by a voice vote that a single senator could have stopped.
That doesn’t happen much any more, and the bill got caught up in that year’s election, languishing in the U.S. House for more than six months. But in December a lame-duck House passed it, 264-157, with 17 Republicans joining the Democratic majority. Among the no votes was Arkansas’ then-3rd District congressman, John Boozman, who was fresh from unseating Lincoln.
The legislation authorized the U.S. Department of Agriculture to devise new standards for school nutrition, and those guidelines have become controversial.
Among other things, they establish limits to the number of calories in a meal — from no more than 650 for children in kindergarten through fifth grade to no more than 850 for students in grades nine-12. The guidelines go further, though — after all, you can get 550 calories from a corn dog, potato chips and a soft drink, which would make many kids happy.
The wisdom of establishing broad caloric standards is certainly debatable. Needs vary from child to child, from day to day, and according to how active the child is.
Also required are fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and lowfat or nonfat dairy products. That, I suspect, is the rub for the kids, rather than the calorie limits. Every parent knows how difficult it can be to get kids to eat their peas, beans, salad or you name it from your own experience.
I’ll guarantee you the cafeteria workers aren’t throwing away many chicken nuggets or french fries.
However, buying fresh fruit and vegetables can be a challenge for the schools. First, it’s going to be more expensive to buy fruits and make a fruit salad than to buy processed fruit cocktail in those big cans. Second, the federal government isn’t covering the full cost of making these changes.
Too often, that’s what we get when we try to cure a problem nationally: A new law that mandates changes but doesn’t offer enough help to pay the cost of implementation.
Some complain that this is taking away local control, but the schools don’t have to follow the rules if they don’t take the federal money.
And in most places each child has the option of supplementing the school lunch or taking his or her own.
That gets us back to the original problem, which the law tries to solve: Too many kids get their bad eating habits outside of school. Can we really expect the schools to solve the problem?
Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.