Separate School Lunch and the State

The USDA's school lunch program has earned a failing grade.


USDA / Flickr

Earlier this week, Wisconsin high-school senior Meghan Hellrood organized a one-day boycott of the awful USDA School Lunch Program meals served at her school.

"It's not actually giving us healthy foods," Hellrood told Fox News. "It's giving us small portions of very processed foods."

The "it's" at issue is the school lunch program itself. The program, which dates back to the 1940s, has become increasingly contentious in recent years, in the wake of First Lady Michelle Obama's well-publicized campaign to foist subjectively healthier foods onto the nation's school lunchrooms. The First Lady's efforts led to passage of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, the law that's changed school menus nationwide.

Many students complain about one-size-fits-all portion sizes and the lack of decent choices.

That's what Hellrood saw at her school, where USDA-compliant lunch options this month include things like "Tony's" cheese pizza, "crunchy popcorn chicken," "nachos grande," "cheese omelet and muffin," "PB Jamwich," "hamburger on a bun 'the works,'" "crispy chicken nuggets," "pizza dippers and sauce," and that old standby, Sloppy Joe.

So Hellrood organized the boycott at her high school, D.C. Everest in Weston, Wisconsin. She used Facebook to publicize the one-day event, which took place on Thursday. The campaign urged students to pack a brown-bag lunch. Hellrood and other student volunteers also packed lunches for those who receive free- or reduced-priced meals under the USDA program and who wanted to take part in the boycott.

The boycott appears to have been a huge success, with up to 85 percent of students participating.

But Hellrood says her goal is that her actions will bring change in Washington, D.C., not just in one Wisconsin town.

"Hellrood says[] the boycott has nothing to do with her school," reported Wisconsin station WAOW. "She says the boycott is about changing the 'Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.'"

But that may be the wrong goal.

The purpose of the USDA's National School Lunch Program is, as Congress declared in establishing the program in 1946, "to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation's children and to encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities and other food[.]"

Whatever past successes that program may point to, by any objective measure, the USDA's school lunch program has since earned a failing grade.

Schools don't like it. More than 1,400 school districts have opted out of the USDA School Lunch Program since 2010. Students and families don't like it, either. According to federal government data, the USDA School Lunch Program served 180 million fewer lunches last year than it did at its high point, in 2010. Average participation for students who pay full meal prices now stands at just 9.2 million, a drop of nearly half from 1970 figures.

Some of the loudest blowback against Mrs. Obama's reforms has come from the School Nutrition Association. The SNA bills itself as "the only professional association dedicated solely to the support and well being of school nutrition professionals." It currently boasts "more than 55,000 members" across the country. SNA members—from so-called lunch ladies to state officials—are no doubt threatened by the First Lady's plans because of the realization of unintended consequences. Fewer lunches purchased means fewer federal funds go to reimburse schools. That, in turn, means the possibility for smaller budgets, potenial layoffs, leaner school kitchen staffs and, presumably, fewer SNA members.

The SNA has allied itself with House GOP members, who want to roll back the changes Mrs. Obama supports.

Much of the focus in recent months has been on this skirmish.

Everyone wants "healthy, nutritious meals for all students," writes Chef Ann Cooper, who supports the changes implemented by the Obama administration. "Where we disagree is how to get there."

That's a fair assessment. The two sides agree on the that (that schools should cook food) but disagree on the what (what food they should cook).

But why do we see such zeal from Mrs. Obama, her allies, and the GOP that schools must cook food? There is absolutely no rational explanation why feeding kids requires schools to hire staff to cook and prepare food.

In fact, common-sense alternatives exist. I've spoken regularly over the years (see, for example, here, here, and here) about my belief that families who can afford to opt out of school lunch should do so, and that schools and the nonprofit and private sectors should partner to help feed good food to kids who can't afford to take lunch to school.

Instead of reforming school lunches from D.C.—the theme pushed by everyone from Chef Cooper to Meghan Hellrood, from Michelle Obama to House GOP members—the better option is to cut Washington out of the equation.

There's precedent for this. One need look no further than the fantastic efforts of Hellrood and her classmates in Wisconsin this week. Opt out if you can, and help those who cannot. That was the message conveyed by Hellrood's actions. If it can work in one school on one day, then there's no reason it can't work in that school every day. There's no reason it can't work in other schools, either.

The answer to the school lunch conundrum isn't going to be found in Washington, D.C. Instead, we should look to D.C. Everest High School to fix what ails school lunches.