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COLUMN: School Lunch Regulations Replacing Parents

By: Rep. Mac Thornberry

Washington, August 19, 2014
A new school year is just around the corner.  Now part of what school districts, administrators, and teachers are preparing for is far-reaching federal food mandates.  Most of us have mixed memories of the food we ate in the school cafeteria.  Some of it was more to our liking than others as the school tried to balance cost, convenience, nutrition, and tastiness.  (I confess that I never ate the lima beans).

Few disagree with the importance of people of all ages trying to eat a healthy, balanced diet.  But recent school lunch regulations being handed down from Washington are attempting to take those closest to the kids – families and local school districts – out of the equation.  In yet another demonstration of the Administration's Washington-knows-best mentality, these regulations are harming those they were intended to help – our children.

The National School Lunch Program was created in 1946, partly to provide a market for agricultural commodities.  It is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  In 2010, a new law championed by First Lady Michelle Obama set new restrictions on what food could be served in schools.  These restrictions prohibit food above a certain sodium, sugar, and fat content; mandate the amount of fruits and vegetables served; and cap the number of calories a kid can consume.

The School Nutrition Association says that since the new standards took effect in 2012, about a million students have stopped eating the lunches and that many of the students who still participate do not eat much of the food, throwing it away.  That is supported by what our schools see every day. 

“Even our children who know there may not be much food at home throw away more than they eat,” one of our area’s school superintendents told my office.  “The food is not what they are used to at home.”  But the food that the students will not eat costs the school more.  Meeting the new regulations resulted in this particular school exceeding its food budget by $30,000.  Those extra costs come from taxpayers or from cuts to other school programs.

I also hear from teachers and administrators that students are sometimes having trouble concentrating in class and maintaining strength during afternoon athletics because they are simply not getting enough to eat during the day.   There are major educational and health consequences at stake.

Several House Republicans are pushing for a provision to give schools at least a year’s reprieve from the new standards.  We hope this provision will be voted on at some point this year.  Of course, it would be better to repeal them altogether, but this measure would give at least some relief to school districts and to students who are bearing the burden of these one-size-fits-all mandates.

These regulations are failing to provide better nutrition for our students, placing unnecessary financial strain on our schools, and allowing folks who have no clue about kids in our area to make decisions better left at home.

Clearly, Washington’s top-down, nanny-state approach is a recipe that needs to be re-written.  And common sense should be a key ingredient.