January 2012 saw the release of new USDA school lunch rules, crafted in the wake of the passage of the Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The new rules were meant to do everything from combating obesity to educating kids about healthier food choices.
The rules add more fruits and vegetables to USDA-provided school lunches in public schools; cap salt, fat, and calories; and replace white flour with whole wheat flour. The new rules also added to the cost of school lunch.
Supporters heaped praises on the new rules after their release.
Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, gushed the new rules were the “best ever.”
The headline to New York University Prof. Marion Nestle’s Atlantic column on the new rules, which she claimed had been met with “near-universal applause”? “The USDA’s New School Nutrition Standards Are Worth Celebrating.”
But all the hype and purported unanimous support seemed perfectly implausible to me.
As I wrote in Reason back in May, even “with new rules set to take effect in the coming months, I’m not optimistic that the quality of school food is likely to change anytime soon.”
Instead of relying on USDA school lunches, I urged families instead to opt out and send kids to school with a brown bag lunch.
Why the pessimism? I wondered how a backwards federal agency beholden to the special interests it promotes and subsidizes could fashion meals for America’s schoolkids that 1) don’t continue to contribute to childhood obesity, 2) contain little or no so-called junk food, 3) provide enough food to that segment of kids for whom the school lunch might be their only meal of the day, and 4) cater to the unique tastes of each of America’s 40-million or so school-age kids.
Earlier this month, the start of the school year around the country gave the new rules their first test. Results have not been pretty.
Seventy percent of students at one Wisconsin high school boycotted USDA school lunches. As one student at the school told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the changes have meant the food is “worse tasting, smaller sized and higher priced.”
Across the country in Connecticut, a student petition protesting the smaller portion sizes resulted in the school district abandoning the rules after “only a few days.”
Even in schools where this sort of open insurrection isn’t yet evident, some reports show students are voting against the new USDA rules with their parent-provided dollars.