A good article from the New York Times on new attempts to tackle the issue of grossly unhealthy school lunches at the federal level. Same song, different verse: the Obama Administration proposed an ambitious bill that doesn't really go far enough but will make a difference, which the Senate promptly reduced by more than half.
Jamie Oliver, God bless him, has thrown the issue in the faces of Americans via his new reality TV show. Whether he set up the employees at the West Virginia school he's shooting the show at, or whether he's just tremendously lucky, I don't know, but you should have seen the show that aired last week. It highlighted the problems almost perfectly.
In the episode, Oliver gets an opportunity to make an alternate lunch one day for the students that will be pushed alongside the traditional fare. He makes vegetable pasta and (I believe) garlic bread. It looks great, the kids seem to like it, and just as it looks like he's scored his first coup, a school health official pulls him aside.
"This meal is not reimbursable because there aren't enough vegetables in it," she tells him. "In order for it to be reimbursable, it has to have 1 1/4 cup of vegetables. I can see right here that it doesn't."
Oliver, incredulous, looks over at the approved lunch on the other side of the bar: a cheeseburger and fries. That meal is reimbursable, she explained, because it has 1/2 cup of vegetables (the french fries!) plus the kids get "the optional salad bar" with it.
How many students can you guess were getting a salad with their burger?
I could not have scripted a better illustration of exactly what's wrong with the system. You get to see the truly foolish decision to let kids decide whether or not to get the healthy option (news flash: they never will!), and the unhealthy, overly processed crap composed of nothing but meat, fat, salt, and simple carbs given as lunch to the kids and sold as "healthy" to the parents, in this case a sad, pallid burger on a white bun with fried, salted potatoes. Bonus points for getting the bureaucrat representing the system to state explicitly, repeatedly, and with a straight face that french fries are a vegetable.
This is what America's kids are eating at least once a day (don't forget, some kids also eat breakfast at school!), five days a week for thirteen years. Other kids, meanwhile, will instead do what I did in junior high: hit the vending machines for an even less healthy alternative to cafeteria food (in my case, two Rice Crispy Treats and a Dr. Pepper). Unhealthy food in school cafeterias contributes to everything from childhood obesity and type II diabetes to drowsiness in class, behavioral problems, and poor academic performance. Over time, of course, those school lunches are ingrained in them as examples of what a lunch should look like, in many cases a meat main course, a simple carb, and two small vegetable sides, at least one of which is actually another carb.
Yet as glad as I am to see the president trying to do something about this problem, I wonder if Washington might have a harder time fixing the problem than locals would have fixing their own school and school district. This issue cuts across everything from topsy-turvy FDA dietary recommendations to inadequate school funding to the overproduction and over-subsidization of corn to the power and influence of major food companies over regulatory bodies and their growing presence in the cafeteria itself.