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 Reason.tv'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.

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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.