John Klar: Free lunch programs plagued by waste, confusion about nutrition

Vermont recently enacted an expensive plan to provide free school lunches and breakfasts to all children, extended through summertime. Despite self-congratulatory progressive back-slapping, this program is economically regressive. It may also be counter-productive in achieving its stated goals from a nutritional standpoint.

It cannot be disputed that a proper diet is vital for effective learning. For years I have supported a Ugandan effort to provide for children there. When we opened a school, nearly 300 children enrolled, and they were provided with two meals daily. Without proper nutrition, children lack focus and achievement in core subjects lags.

U.S. Department of Agriculture

New federal laws seek to reduce sugars and other unhealthy content, and chocolate milk has now been banned from school lunches. Yet some kids won’t drink unflavored milk.

But American school lunches are much more complex than Ugandan bean soup. In the United States, school lunches were introduced following the Great Depression, partly in response to the failure of some 45% of military recruits to serve in World War II due to malnutrition. But the program was also prompted by an effort to prop up declining prices for agricultural goods, which the government still purchases from farmers for use in lunches.

This well-intentioned program has now morphed into something quite different. While advocates have rightly focused on staving off malnutrition, the United States now faces a new challenge relating to food quality: “overnutrition.” In 2023, overweight children outnumber undernourished children. 

One problem with school lunches has been waste. About 30 million out of 49.2 million U.S. students receive school lunches (some of them pay for these meals). But kids throw away a lot of food, especially if it is unsavory. The program costs about $14 billion annually, of which the World Wildlife Fund says about $2 billion annually is wasted. One study reports that K-12 children throw away about half of school cafeteria food.

Prior to the recent expansion, low income residents in Vermont already received federal lunch benefits: what is called “targeted” school meals. By expanding provision of these often highly-processed subsidized foods to wealthier Vermonters, progressives are now going to tax low- and fixed-income Vermonters to supply meals to rich kids too. This economic regressivity is made yet worse if what is being provided is unhealthy.

Vermont’s statute seeks to source 15% of foods locally where possible, a good goal but difficult to achieve or measure. Federal programs require that 51% of food must be sourced domestically, but that too has become increasingly murky to monitor. In fact, these problems of food quality have persisted — and worsened — for years.

Ronald Reagan was famously ridiculed for cost-cutting efforts to school lunch subsidies that categorized ketchup as a vegetable. Yet today, the tomato paste of a slice of pizza reportedly counts as a vegetable portion for the lunch program, so little has changed.  

Fortunately, people are waking up:

For the last several decades, public school cafeterias have been exemplified by reheated chicken nuggets, French fries, hamburgers, “mystery meat,” and a bevy of unhealthy processed foods. Thankfully, some public school students are happily making the switch to fresh foods, making processed foods on campus a phenomenon of the past.

But not all students are so happy — like adults, they like what tastes good. New federal laws seek to reduce sugars and other unhealthy content, and chocolate milk has now been banned from school lunches. Yet some kids won’t drink unflavored milk. Additionally, whole milk is no longer offered (in favor of skim or low-fat milk), yet kids are getting heavier regardless, and Type 2 diabetes is rising. 

Perhaps the government that told us high carb diets were healthy, and subsidizes high fructose corn syrup, sugar, and hydrogenated fats, is not to be trusted with food quality in the clarion of “helping the poor.” There is increasingly strong evidence that children who drink whole milk are less obese:

Canadian researchers analyzed 14 prospective studies including 20,897 children up to 18 years old. The studies compared children who drank whole milk (3.25 percent fat) with those given milk containing less than 2 percent fat. Combining the data from these studies, the scientists calculated that compared with children who drank low-fat milk or skim milk, those who drank whole milk were at a 39 percent reduced risk for overweight or obesity, and the risk for obesity declined steadily as whole milk consumption increased. 

This seems counterintuitive, until one examines the likely mechanism:

Because lower-fat milk is less satiating than whole milk, the doctors wrote, it’s more likely a kid will make up for it by then eating more starchy, sugary, refined foods. This not only leads to weight gain but also raises triglyceride levels, which can be more harmful to heart health than the saturated fat in whole milk.

Government has a poor food track record, and many studies show that “students who regularly eat hot lunches are more likely to be overweight and obese as opposed to kids who bring their lunches.” If kids are treated like confined dairy cows who will eat whatever is plunked in front of them, it is small wonder they make poor choices. The best solution would seem to be to instead subsidize parents who pack healthy lunches, just as it would make sense to support parents who raise their children at home rather than prejudice them by subsidizing public daycare. Kids don’t make good choices, yet Vermont progressives seek to let them choose gender hormone therapies behind parents’ backs — why would pizza and chocolate milk be of concern?

Without a proper food education, humans of any age tend to make bad dining choices. Throwing money at school lunches to expand their availability to wealthy children does nothing to improve food quality:

A better way forward would be to provide schools with the resources to create a culture of holistic nutrition education by making it an integral part of the curriculum. … If we want healthy kids rather than healthy trash cans, we need to rethink the proposed school nutrition guidelines.

Vermont will do better by its students in the future if it focuses less on patently regressive feel-good income reallocation and more on core learning, including about nutrition and food choices. Finland presents a good model:

Free school meals in Finland are viewed as an investment for the future; the aim is to maintain and improve children’s health, well-being, and learning. The school meal is used as a pedagogical tool for teaching table manners, food culture, nutrition, and healthy eating habits. … One of the basic lessons is cooperation between students, head teachers, teachers, parents, and catering staff. … The pedagogical role of the school catering staff is seen as important, as is teachers’ knowledge of nutrition. In 2009, Finland began developing school meal and nutrition education for teachers, and pedagogical education for school catering personnel.

It is just hard to imagine progressives instructing Vermont children in good manners. They appear to be conditioning them for the exact opposite, and to rebel against their parents and their teachings. It is evident that government oversight is a poor replacement for human parenting, including where food choices are concerned.

John Klar is an attorney and farmer residing in Brookfield. © Copyright True North Reports 2023. All rights reserved.

Image courtesy of U.S. Department of Agriculture

4 thoughts on “John Klar: Free lunch programs plagued by waste, confusion about nutrition

  1. What does nutrition matter when big pharma, the FDA, and government overlords force medical poinsoning and genocide onto children and adults alike? The food and water supply is poisoned with chemicals to kill slowly, but surely. Customers for life is the overall scheme and it is working. The government cares about nutrition – good one!

  2. We’ve learned nothing from the cardboard meals of Big Mike the man of the obama family? The waste isn’t only the meal they won’t eat it’s the money we no longer have to feed our selves or spend as we see fit. Just another stupid leftist commie idea that makes those idiot feel better about pretending to do something at our expense. You want to keep the kids attentive, turn down the heat and up the air conditioner.

  3. I have family members that work in the public school system and the story is always
    the same, a daily waste of food that’s being handed out to these little darlings that take
    it all and then throw it all away, just another government program of wasteful spending
    with no oversight……………………………………….

  4. Strange, the first thing I thought of, when I saw the title was, that kids want chocolate milk. We spend too much time trying to direct them to Healthy choices and a large percentage of the food ends up in the trash. We would waste lots less if kids brought their own lunch like I did 65 years ago. Now, if that happened at school today the lunch police would freak.

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