Nanny State

Opt Out of School Lunch

Should schools force kids to eat USDA-approved food, or should families take back control of what their kids are eating?


Happy Food Revolution Day! In case you didn't know, Saturday, May 17 19 has been dubbed thusly by none other than British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. One of the main goals of the day, according to Oliver, is "to get the world to focus on food issues and rally our efforts to bring food education back into schools." That mission comes as no surprise because, as I discussed in Reason two years ago, Oliver originally brought the Food Revolution concept to America with the express mission of improving school lunches.

School food is always a hot topic, and is perhaps more so now than it's ever been. From a publicity standpoint, school food has taken off as an issue largely due to the efforts of Oliver and First Lady Michelle Obama. But viewed from the standpoint of edibility, cost, and healthiness, food served by public schools via the USDA's National School Lunch Program was already an issue because that program and its food have a decades-long track record of sucking. And in spite of the best efforts of Oliver and Mrs. Obama, along 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. Why?

If you're one of those who thought all this talk about the National School Lunch Program had translated into better food, think again. Contrary to any visions you may have of expensive reforms leading to school kitchens serving as virtual clearinghouses for fresh fruits and vegetables, that just isn't the case. Expensive reforms? You bet. They crop up every few years. But schools are still serving kids nachos. And sometimes—as happened last week at a public school in Ohio—those nachos are full of ants.

Issues like ants in food are hardly rare. And other systemic problems persist.

For example, special interests help define foods standards for school lunches. Echoing the Reagan Administration's declaration of ketchup as a vegetable, Congress recently declared that pizza (because of its tomato sauce and the tomato and institutional frozen pizza lobbies) counts as a vegetable.

(Article continues below's "The Case Against Jamie Oliver.")

School lunches also neuter the ability of families to make dietary choices their children. Consider the pink slime controversy earlier this year. Whether you were up in arms over chemically treated meat or thought it was completely fine to eat, the truth is if you're a public school parent whose child eats a school lunch you still have little say over whether or not your child eats pink slime—or genetically-modified foods, sugars, starches, and a whole host of other foods about which decent parents (and experts) disagree.

Another good example of how school lunches usurp family decision-making took place in Chicago last year, where a seventh grader named Fernando Dominguez helped lead a revolt against his school's six-year-old policy that banned students from taking their own lunch to school. According to the Chicago Tribune, the principal argued that the policy was put in place "to protect students from their own unhealthful food choices."

A similar story played out earlier this year in North Carolina, where a public school forced a Pre-K student to eat the chicken nuggets that were part of the school lunch because school cafeteria monitors didn't feel the student's lunch (a turkey sandwich) was healthy enough.

Where does a school get off acting this way? We don't know because, according to documents obtained by the nonprofit that exposed Nuggetgate in the first place, the principal allegedly stonewalled a state investigator looking into the issue, saying he "would not respond to any questions" the investigator asked of him.

Another glaring problem with school lunches is their cost. In Philadelphia, closing 26 school kitchens—as part of an effort to help staunch a nearly $700-million city deficit—will save the city $2.3 million dollars. New York City's decision to cut its hot lunch offerings from two to one is expected to save the city an astonishing $20 million a year. But these savings are minimal compared to the nationwide cost—currently $11 billion, but expected to climb to $14 billion once new rules take effect this summer—of the National School Lunch Program. (That figure doesn't include the cost to taxpayers of subsidizing many of the agricultural products that are produced in surplus and go on to become school lunch.)

And then there are the often confusing and sometime punitive rules that come with taking part in the school lunch program. This month, for example, a public school in Salt Lake City was fined $15,000 for selling soda outside of approved hours (in apparent violation of USDA rules). The principal appears unhappy and confused:

"Before lunch you can come and buy a carbonated beverage. You can take it into the cafeteria and eat your lunch, but you can't first go buy school lunch then come out in the hallway and buy a drink," said Davis High Principal Dee Burton.

Principal Burton said he does not understand the law with rules that seem to be contradictory.

"We can sell a Snickers bar, but can't sell licorice. We can't sell Swedish Fish, we can't sell Starburst, we can't sell Skittles, but we can sell ice cream, we can sell the Snickers bar, Milky Ways, all that stuff," said Burton.

Got that?

These anecdotes help illustrate the point that food served in public school cafeterias has—along with prison food—long been one of the best arguments against the singular notion that big, mean corporations are responsible for all of the food problems we face in America. After all, public-school lunches are government creations. They're subsidized by government, provided by government, served by government, and paid for by government. And they're often gross, unhealthy, and wasteful.

But supporters of the National School Lunch Program, not surprisingly, argue that what's needed are reforms, improvements, rejiggering, and—of course—more money.

For example, I appeared on Laura Ingraham's radio show yesterday and debated Janet Poppendieck, the author of the book Free For All and one of the leading voices in the school lunch reform movement. In her book, Poppendieck argues that all students in pubic schools should be force to eat USDA food free of charge to reduce what she calls the "stigma" of free food that low-income kids currently face.

While Poppendieck backtracked from that goal on the air yesterday—saying that kids who choose not to buy a school lunch might not in fact "undermine" and "stigmatize" the school lunch program, as she's previously claimed—any talk of a free, universal, USDA-funded school lunch for all demands an alternative.

Is there another way? I say yes.

This week my nonprofit, Keep Food Legal, launched a new project we're calling Opt Out of School Lunch. The project urges families to take back control of what their kids are eating by preparing a simple brown-bag lunch for each child, every school day. We want families to stop fighting for the unreachable goal of having the USDA provide food that is both objectively "better" and that appeals to everyone. There are too many special interests (including the government itself) involved in deciding what "food" ends up on a child's plate.

We're appealing to students, educators, businesses, nonprofits, and taxpayers to work together to find solutions for kids whose parents may not be able to afford to bring a lunch every day. And we're calling on restaurateurs, caterers, and grocers who often throw away food good enough to bring home and serve to their own families the next day as leftovers to end the senseless and needless food waste and to donate that food to families in need.

In addition to giving control back to families, Opt Out of School Lunch has many other benefits. The program can help improve childhood nutrition, reduce childhood obesity, let schools focus on what should be their core mission of educating students, control federal spending, reduce state and local overhead and costs, attack USDA subsidies, and help the environment by eliminating food waste.

These changes won't be easy, and they won't happen overnight. But it's this sort of transformative change that I think can rightly be labeled as a food revolution.

Please visit Opt Out of School Lunch, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

Baylen J. Linnekin, a lawyer, is executive director of Keep Food Legal, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit that advocates in favor of food freedom—the right to grow, raise, produce, buy, sell, cook, eat, and drink the foods of our own choosing.

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  1. It’s not like parents don’t know schools serve crap on a plate to their kids. The vast majority just don’t seem to care or have the time to do anything about it. That’s why the answer is always going to be “get the government to give us free stuff,” even if it doesn’t work. The purpose of the program was never to keep kids healthy but to give an entitlement to public school parents.

    1. Exactly. If you don’t like the crap the school is serving, make your kid’s lunch yourself for them to take to school.

      1. but making a sandwich, or having the kids make their own, and grabbing an apple or a banana and whatever else is just too hard. Why do you hate children? And parents?

        1. I honestly blame registered dieticians here. The goal of the registered dietician is to get the chilluns on a one-size-fits-all, USDA pyramid diet. They believe (IMMO, erroneously) that placing every little moppet on a similar diet will yield similar results (barring food allergies and other complicating conditions) and they certainly don’t allow, for the most part, differences in racial demography to hinder this goal of stratifying a uniform standard for all children. If they could proscribe a Matrix style, USDA “perfect” gruel for all chilluns, I guarantee you they would mandate it.

          For example, if you have a high degree of Native American or Black/African racial phylogeny, the odds of you developing say, Type II diabetes and essential hypertension, from a diet that is rich in carbs and high amounts of salt is greater than the typical Anglo/WASP lineage. Like cookie cutter medicine, the cookie cutter approach to nutrition, while it may be well-intentioned, is ultimately flawed and will not yield the results these nanny dieticians would like. Coupled with the fact that children are just not as active as they used to be complicates matters.

          Sorry folks, but racial make-up does matter when choosing your foodstuffs, and the State should not be forcing parents to opt for a USDA approved diet when the parents may feel that another lunch prepared at home is more appropriate (and more likely for the child to eat.)

          And a +cafeteria pizza to heller.

    2. The purpose of the program was never to keep kids healthy but to give an entitlement to public school parents.

      Indeed. In my experience growing up, only the po’ ass kids got (free) school lunch. Anyone who came from a lower middle class home or higher would bring their own lunch. That a stigma exists around free school lunch is a positive expression of the American cultural values of self-reliance and material wealth.

      Poppendieck is a monumental ass.

      1. The school lunches are heavily subsized, so everyone eating them is getting at least partial freebies from other taxpayers.

        I’ve got a big case of meh over this. If my kids want to eat that crap, fine, if not, they can make their own lunch — both of which they’ve done.

        They’re as healthy as they ever will get — they will survive eating non-tasty food will no ill effects.

  2. Once again showing how the biggest bully of them all is the State.

  3. According to the Chicago Tribune, the principal argued that the policy was put in place “to protect students from their own unhealthful food choices.”

    When tactics like fails to indoctrinate them, it can produce some wonderfully anti-authoritarian blowback.

    1. That quote grabbed my attention as well, as it’s begging for the “FUCK OFF SLAVER!” treatment. The Reagan administration may have characterized ketchup as a vegetable, but he was bang on when he said:

      “Government exists to protect us from each other. Where government has gone beyond its limits is in deciding to protect us from ourselves.”

      1. So, his words were fine, but he deeds were craven.

        But sometimes his words were craven and stupid, too.

        “Trees cause more pollution than automobiles do.” — Ronald Reagan, 1981

        “I have flown twice over Mt St. Helens out on our west coast. I’m not a scientist and I don’t know the figures, but I have a suspicion that that one little mountain has probably released more sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere of the world than has been released in the last ten years of automobile driving or things of that kind that people are so concerned about.” — Ronald Reagan, 1980. (Actually, Mount St. Helens, at its peak activity, emitted about 2,000 tons of sulfur dioxide per day, compared with 81,000 tons per day by cars.)

        1. Irrelevant quotes totally tangential to anything under discussion. Cool story bro.

          1. Someone made the argument that although Reagan may have done some wrong-headed things (Ketchup is a vegetable) he had high-sounding rhetoric.

            I pointed out that sometimes his rhetoric was lame-brain stupid.

            Your memes are bad, and you should feel bad.

  4. I always thought that the Reagan era definition was simply a recognition of the way kids use ketchup.

  5. Just got my first rapescan. Hurray America!

    1. Just got my first rapescan. Hurray America!

      If you were a real patriot, you’d be regaling us with tales of your first groping, because you’d opted out of the scan. 😉

      1. He is a real patriot, Karl. The rapescan is just the tip; eventually Apatheist will graduate to full scale, cylindrical meatstick groperape.

        (My first grope by these Keystone Klowns was pretty awful. The groper enjoyed the process entirely too much and he reeked of head cheese. True story.)

        1. I came pretty close to being incarcerated going thru the TSA checkpoint at McCarran Intl on my way home from the LP convention. Turned out that the various screeners (I worked my way up the chain of command after opting out of the RapeScanner) have no idea what is in the Bill of Rights, and actually said so to me in those words.

          When I told the TSA chief that touching my genitals would be “rape”, he threatened to call the cops (again) for using that word, and seemed baffled when I pointed out that I had a First Amendment right to characterize such groping however I pleased.

          He was reeeeeeal tentative about patting me down, since I’d made it abundantly clear that I wasn’t going to knuckle under to any mistreatment beyond what I’d already endured getting to that point.

          1. Weirdly, I bet you would fight for the right for a corporation to pat you down, and grope you, as a term of service before using their airplanes.

            Same effect, different agency. Sigh.

            1. Same effect different agency?

              Even if the effect produced is one of free will rather than coercion it doesn’t matter? Since corporations have things you want but you can’t coerce them you want government to coerce everyone? Before the TSA several airlines patted people down and everyone was OK with it?

              Lay off the bong for a few.

              1. Bong?

                I’m the director of a prized department in a recently acquired firm in the health insurance sector.

                I may not smoke pot, but I can curse, ya f*cking lame.

  6. If I were running a school, this is how it would be: multiple payment options, lower cost core curriculum, and optional courses for extra $$. Reduced hours for core classes. Rest of afternoon and evening for optional extracurricular activities, including all sports and clubs. Part of optional payment and/or partly or fully self-financed; open to all students. School grounds and facilities open 24/7.

    There will be faculty kitchen open to students (multiple fridges, microwaves, stoves, sinks, etc) — but no school provided meals! Instead, part of property is leased out to multiple restaurants and vending machines, convenient stores and shops. Part of this will finance the facilities, and non-core activities. The lower core curriculum cost will attract more students and incentivize vendor space leasing. Property accessible to all and school located next to other businesses as well. Students can also use part of school grounds to sell items to other people, to help self finance any club activity.

    1. And you could add that at least one parent would be at every school function the brat was a part of, and would be required to attend every end of term teacher conference, and every brat that was a behavior problem could be summarily booted.
      Of course if you could require such behavior you would be a private school, funded by a voucher if you were convinced the government should be in the education business in some way, and would have the government completely out of the education end of the equation.


  7. Principal Burton said he does not understand the law with rules that seem to be contradictory.
    Seriously Dude, how long have you been a government functionary? That’s like first thing you learn.

    Yoda: Do or do not … there is no understanding.

    1. I remember in about 5th grade or so, I was eating God-knows-what from the cafeteria, and I ate a hair. It was half swallowed by the time I realized something was amiss, and when I pulled it out, it was pulling a loose thread from a sweater. That bitch was LONG.

  8. When we actually ordered “mystery meat” in high school, the cafeteria nazis would glare holes in us. But it was funny every time.

  9. Keep in mind that – like the food stamp program – the primary purpose of the school lunch program was not to provide nutrition to poor people but to soak up surplus crops and keep farm income high. It’s those damn farmers again.

    Farmers: salt of the earth or evil communists?

    1. Farmers: salt of the earth or evil communists?

      Yes, absolutely.

  10. Baylen, Parents are ALWAYS in charge of what their children eat. The Byline of the article shifts the parents’ responsibility of teaching their children responsibility by blaming the government for the parents’ choice. Parents can grocery shop, teach their children to take responsibility of their own bodies by preparing their own food, and be responsible for the only thing they can control – their actions. Any other position, including writing an article that advocates the shift of responsibility, undermines the ability of any individual – parent or child.

    1. If you made it past the subhead you no doubt noted there are schools out there that won’t let parents have the final say about what their kids eat. Schools where kids get a yummy USDA meal of Hobson’s choice for lunch every day.

      1. Schools where kids get a yummy USDA meal of Hobson’s choice for lunch every day.

        Mr. Linnekin, I am so stealing this. Well done!

      2. Sorry, Baylen, but it says nothing of the sort. What is says is “IF you are going to hold out your hand to government they can shit in it if they like, and they usually do”. Parents are basically complaining that they don’t like the free stuff they are getting. Cry me a river.

        No one is forced to send their children to public school. So there is no way “schools out there won’t let parents have the final say” unless these schools are sending their swat teams to force the privately or home schooled child into eating a certain type of meal. It is a possibility, I admit, but not what you are describing.

        Every time you get into bed with government you should expect to get fucked.

  11. ‘the problem with school lunches is the consumption of fatty foods… and sedentary behavior’ source please… Gary Taubes certainly cites his work that concludes the very opposite.
    Great vid until that unfounded conclusion after the 6 min mark.

  12. Your ideas are great!

    Except for the children who had so little sense as to be born into poor families.

    Those suckers! Ha, ha, ha!


    2. Guess you missed that entire second page discussing providing healthy alternatives to shitty cafeteria food for poor children through private programs. Better they should eat shitty cafeteria food than relinquish government control though. Don’t you remember how many children starved to death during the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s? TEH CHILDRENZ!

      1. And I guess you missed how hard Pepsi and Coke push to be served in schools.

        I’m sure it will get _super_ healthy if only the corporations were put in charge.

  13. What is it with the “Gary Taubes” thing? Y’all sound like El Indio Caucasoid after awhile.

    I love pasta. I love bread. Not to mention things like- Potatoes. Cereal. Rice. Beans. Corn. Bananas. Oatmeal Cookies!

    In May 2010, I was a 6 ft., 45 yr old man who was pushing 220. I started a a calorie controlled (1600/day) diet consisting of 55-60% of the dreaded “carbs” – and, in another seeming bugaboo of the paleo crew- I started ‘running slowly for long distances’. (google: C25K)

    So, I basically did everything wrong.

    Meanwhile, I am now maintaining 170 lbs- with the 30″ waist that I last saw in 7th grade(I think I was 5’2″ at the time) while drinking 2 1.75 litre bottles (That’s almost a gallon for the metrically impaired) of 80 proof alcohol every week.

    Each and Every fucking week for the last 12 months.


    47 yrs old. Drinking 120 something ounces of 80 proof rum every week. Loving my carbs. 30″ waist (down from 35″). 170 lbs. (down from 218).

    Fuck you Gary Taubes!

    1. I hear you, trust me. I love bread, pasta, etc, but I choose not to eat them because I believe the case against them AND I (40) and the wife (32) have gotten the same results as you doing the exact opposite of you. And yes, the obvious response is different strokes for different folks, right? I mean we both got ourselves a nice little sample size of one. The kicker: although I slammed the video for it’s BS conclusion that people today are fat because the eat too much and exercise too little, that’s not why I do paleo. Body composition is just the most visible reason. I do it for all the “hidden” reasons like I no longer require heartburn meds, I’m no longer allergic to cats/grass, I can actually sit on my ass for a month and not put on a pound, or I can work out and put on muscle easily, etc and I frankly look healthier. Calorie restriction will get the weight down, but the problem is (IF you believe the science) folks like you wake up one day w/ cancer, heart disease, fibromyalgia, on and on and on, and have no idea why and will probably just blame genetics or some environmental “toxin”. That’s why i believe and do paleo. But again, I wasn’t trying to convert you, just calling BS to the video’s bogus calories in/calories out myth; Taubes does debunk the shit out of it if you read his work, doesn’t mean your results were not possible, it just means that the overeating/underexercising hypothesis is wrong.

    2. It’s really all about calorie control, and, congratulations. It seems like a lot of alcohol, for your liver’s sake, but I bet your brain loves you.

      There might be some marginal difference in different combinations of proteins, carbs, fiber, et cetera, but not that much.

  14. Principal Burton said he does not understand the law with rules that seem to be contradictory.…..-c-15.html

  15. I’m going to call bullshit on the whole “stigma” for free lunches, at least in this neck of the woods. The reason? Maybe the two school officials – one a principle and one a school board member – who have been indicted on charges from allegedly falsifying their incomes in order to get free lunches for their kids.

    Sorry, but if there was really any kind of stigma, then there wouldn’t be nearly as strong a desire to commit fraud for something that would make their kids outcasts.

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