First Lady Michelle Obama made healthy school lunches a signature part of her “Let’s Move” initiative to promote health and wellness and combat obesity among America’s youth. The First Lady and Administration championed the passage of the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act, which created several new Federal mandates for school lunch programs, including requiring schools to serve certain foods at breakfast and lunch. As school districts struggled to implement the program, the backlash from students was almost immediate. Many took to Twitter to show the less than desirable impact these “improvements” were having on school meals. Some reports estimated 1,000,000 students left the school lunch program since the requirements were put in place. School districts have also complained of students wasting their lunch, and subsequently money, which is a significant hardship for already financially strapped schools.
The fallout from mandating more fruits and vegetables in school lunches should serve as a cautionary tale for the USDA and HHS as the agencies finalize the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for release this year. Earlier this year, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (“Committee”) released the Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee , which will inform how the USDA and HHS formulates the final Dietary Guidelines. The report concluded that “a healthy dietary pattern is higher in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low- or non-fat dairy, seafood, legumes, and nuts; moderate in alcohol (among adults); lower in red and processed meat; and low in sugar-sweetened foods and drinks and refined grains.” The Dietary Guidelines are just that, “guidelines;” however, they will have a significant impact on nutrition assistance and education programs at the state and local level. Nutrition educators who are often funded by USDA will use these guidelines to provide nutritional education to children and Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program recipients.
During an open comment period on the Scientific Report, commenters expressed support for the Committee’s efforts to promote a more plant-based diet. Others questioned the basis for the Committee’s decision to not address the benefits of a balanced diet that includes lean-meat consumption and the fact that the majority of the Committee included academics who support government intervention in dietary choices. Glenn Lammi with the Washington Legal Foundation stated “the federal government’s Dietary Guidelines have always fallen short of providing clear, consistent recommendations for healthy eating.” He went on to note that “2015 may mark the year that the Guidelines go from being an easily dismissed distraction to a damaging vehicle for eating away at Americans’ freedom of choice .”
The Twitter pictures only tell part of the story regarding the school lunch reforms. They also highlight the realities many school districts face when trying to implement these Federal mandates. For example, many schools are subject to state and local procurement requirements that dictate how they contract with food service providers for school lunches. These requirements can hinder a school district’s ability to the serve the foods prescribed by the USDA. Further, these requirements can quell grassroots efforts to address healthy eating and nutrition. As school districts focus on meeting Federal standards, they may ignore local efforts to promote healthy eating like school gardens, which give students first-hand experience choosing and growing their own food and teach them valuable like skills that will enable them to make their own healthy choices.
There is no question that emphasizing healthy eating is a good cause. However, it is impossible for policymakers to anticipate every possible negative outcome of their “solutions.” Efforts to improve school lunches have resulted in wastes of food and money, skepticism from students about a very important issue, and taken the conversation regarding healthy eating and nutrition away from positive local efforts to educate children on the importance of healthy food choices. Hopefully, USDA and HHS will take this under consideration when they issue the 2015 Dietary Guidelines.