USDA's School Lunch Reforms Earn an "F" from Students

First Lady Michelle Obama and a host of "experts" were wrong about the USDA's new school lunch rules. Is there another way?


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.

First Lady Michelle Obama, who "championed" the rule changes, claimed they would make sure "our hard work [as parents is not] undone each day in the school cafeteria."

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. 

Impossible, right?

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.

"At one recent lunch at the McCook Junior High, students cheerfully grabbed an orange or apple as part of their lunch," writes Lorri Sughroue in an optimistically titled piece, "No Food Fight Here: Students Adjust to New School Lunches," that appeared in the McCook (Nebraska) Daily Gazette this week. 

"But afterward," continues Sughroue, "a long line of kids formed at the 'Snack Bar,' which sells cookies, pretzels, potato chips and Powerade."

Sughroue also quoted Sodexo employee Diana Gull, who observed, "There's a line [at the Snack Bar] until the bell rings, it's non-stop."

The rules have also meant other headaches, including barring kids from customizing their USDA school lunches. Don't want cheese on your tacos, Junior? Tough.

So what is one to conclude about the new USDA rules and they way they're being implemented?

Just weeks into the new school year, it appears that the new rules largely treat every student as if they're obese, and that it is the USDA's position that fewer animal products and more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains will help them shed the necessary weight.

I'm not a nutritionist. But putting millions of growing, hungry schoolkids on a restricted diet—from student-athletes to needy kids who may count on the school lunch as "their best, and perhaps only, meal of the day"—under the guise of a Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act—seems like dangerous doublespeak.

Others agree. In New York, certified nutritionist Kim Thompson told WKTV she now "recommends that student athletes bring extra food to school or buy extra food in the cafeteria."

Kansas school superintendent Suzan Patton, meanwhile, informed the Pratt Tribune, "It's not addressing the needs of the kids that are healthy." Furthermore, she said, "One size fits all is not meeting all the needs."

Some prominent National School Lunch Program supporters also appear to be qualifying their support. Bettina Siegel, perhaps best known as the driving force behind the removal of so-called pink slime from school lunches and elsewhere, writes that school lunch portion sizes now show "clearly we have a problem"—it may be that they're now too small.

So what can families do? As I did here back in May, I'll again pitch my nonprofit Keep Food Legal's new project, Opt Out of School Lunch. While you'll find more details at our website, our suggestion boils down to this: Brown bag it. For those students whose families are unable to afford making lunch every day, we urge businesses and schools to work together with these families to find tasty and healthy solutions.

Unlike CSPI's Wootan, NYU's Nestle, and First Lady Michelle Obama, I don't pretend to know what the government should be feeding your children. What I do know is that you should be feeding your own children to the greatest extent and to the best of your abilities.

Don't give your child a dollar and hope they eat what you want them to eat. Send them to school with the food you want them to eat.

By taking part in the USDA's National School Lunch Program charade, you're wrongly endorsing the agency's policies and joining those "celebrating" its "best ever" reforms. The USDA may not be able to do better than that. But you can.