Editorial

Are healthy school lunches really healthy if they're not eaten?

Monday, December 10, 2018

If a tree falls in the forest and no oneís around to hear it, does it make a noise?

If a school serves healthier lunches, but kids donít eat them, are the meals really healthier?

No, according to Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue, who eased school lunch rules as part of the Trump Administrationís push to cut back regulations across the board.

Despite the headlines, the changes arenít all that radical.

Under rules advanced by Michelle Obama, 100 percent of grains must be whole grain, salt must be cut by an additional 24 percent starting next year and flavored milk must be non-fat.

Perdue changed that to a 50-percent requirement for whole grains, no additional cut to salt content, and allowing 1 percent flavored milk to be served.

The American Heart Association is hoping schools will continue to follow the stricter standards, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest says changing the whole-grain requirements makes no sense because most schools already complied, and the others eventually would be able to.

But Perdue says that ďif kids arenít eating the food, and itís ending up in the trash, they arenít getting any nutrition ó thus undermining the intent of the program.Ē

Some 30 million children eat National School Lunch Program-sponsored lunches, costing taxpayers some $13 billion a year, on top of the $6 billion charged to parents and hundreds of millions of others paid by states. The total food cost went up some $1.2 billion in 2015 when the Obama rules went into effect.

If estimates of 25-45 percent waste are accurate ó including 90 percent of the vegetables ó thatís a lot of well-intentioned waste. Thatís on top of a similar amount of waste in the overall U.S. food industry.

School lunch waste is a complicated issue, however.

Students who donít eat fruits and vegetables at home arenít likely to eat them at school, either.

Some students get only 15 minutes for lunch, which doesnít encourage consumption of fruits or vegetables.

Some studies showed that students who were offered more fruits and vegetables actually ate more of them, but others show that students who are forced to take fruits and vegetables are more likely to throw them away.

Disincentives are built into the school lunch program requirements as well.

A program can get by serving the same 850-calorie lunch to a 300-pound football player as it does to the 90-pound cheerleader.

And, schools are reimbursed the same amount for each meal whether it is thrown away or eaten, leaving no incentive to serve better quality foods.

Itís tempting for political leaders to use institutions like public schools to create social change they have promised to voters or in which they truly believe.

Like so many efforts, however, regulating one small aspect of American lives can have unintended consequences and results exactly opposite those intended.

Kids who subsist on a diet of unhealthy food at home are unlikely to make good choices when itís time to eat at school.

Truly effective, cost-effective changes to dietary habits have to start with the parents.

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