August 11, 2014

A Political Food Fight In School Cafeterias

By: Connor Mabon

Portrait of a alone and sad female student sitting in the cafete

I was in a food fight once, an aerial assault of steaming hot mashed potatoes. I never thought I’d witness another one. Fast forward nine years and we’re seeing one unfold on the national stage.

Instead of microwaveable mashed potatoes, though, it’s federal regulations, political insults, and a seemingly endless supply of money from special interest groups seeking to influence public opinion and political outcomes.

The lunchroom brawl began when Michelle Obama announced her ambitious Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010 to provide American schoolchildren with healthier food choices and reduce childhood obesity.

It began as a bipartisan law initially backed by Republicans and Democrats who seemed to have reached a compromise. Ninety percent of schools have reported successfully meeting the new nutrition standards.

For some schools, however, especially those in rural areas, the program has proven too costly. The inflexible nature of these reforms mandated by the act is widening the gap between rural schools and their more urban and suburban counterparts.

A recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that participation in the program has declined by more than 1 million nationwide since the 2010-2011 academic year. Between 2012-2013 the number dropped to 30.7 million students from 31.8 million.

As indicated by the report, there are several factors as to why there’s been such a significant drop. For paying students, the increase in meal price, smaller portions served, and a general lack of interest in the program are reasons enough not to participate. Forcing children to eat healthier by way of government mandate has also led to unintended food waste.

This argument is currently being challenged by a July 2014 study conducted by the Bridging the Gap research program whose goal it is to improve the understanding of how policies and environmental factors affect our diet. The study found most students are beginning to actually like the changes made to school lunches and 59% of schools surveyed reported no difference in food waste. This newfound success may be a result of continuous exposure.

An ideological split nonetheless remains on the true effectiveness of the school lunch program.

After mounting pressure from fiscal conservatives and organizations like the School Nutrition Association, schools struggling with the program’s implementation were able to buy the necessary time needed to adjust to the federal regulations.

Leading the charge was Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Al.) who, along with other conservatives in the House Appropriations Committee, were able to narrowly pass an amendment granting waivers to school districts that demonstrated their new lunch programs operated at a net loss over a continuous six month period.

As noted by SNA’s President Leah Schmidt, it allows for the struggling schools to “catch up.” The waivers could give financially strapped schools the chance to acquire the resources needed to accommodate the new regulations; they may also waivers allow more time for food companies to repurpose their products to appeal to the health conscious standards.

Proponents of the program frustrated over this supposed delay argue Republicans are doing the bidding of the food industry. The Obama administration claims the waiver rider is a step backward and would “roll back gains” already being made.Aderholt, the amendment’s architect, received at least $19,000 in campaign contributions from various food processing companies during the 2014 election cycle, according to Seven other Republicans on the subcommittee have received $98,238.

Over the years, data show the food industry’s interest in the pro-business wing of the Republican Party with $184.8 million being donated to candidates and committees. Though they received $76 million less than their conservative counterparts, Democrats are still equally caught up in the food industry’s web of influence.

Using the oft-mentioned catch phrase, “crony capitalism,” free market advocates rightly denounce the opaque intentions of special interest groups and the money used by food industry leaders to influence political outcomes.

But the industry’s influence doesn’t end with politics.

Our media landscape is saturated with advertisements contradicting this effort to make kids healthier.

Between 2009-2010, McDonald’s, which has become the demonized poster child for other national food chains, aired a total of 44,062 ads. Forty percent of those ads were aimed at children with 69 percent of them mentioning toy giveaways.

This is not meant to say we should eliminate fast food companies’ ability to advertise their products. In 2006, with the help of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, the 10 leading food and beverage companies launched the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative as a way to self-regulate advertisements directed toward children. How effective this self-regulation is uncertain.

The majority of advertisements seen today still involve the encouraged consumption of pizza, hamburgers, French fries, soda, and candy.

Fortunately, schools have taken it upon themselves to do their own self-regulating. Forty-four percent of the 800 school districts surveyed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have banned junk food from vending machines.

The National School Lunch Program has a long, relatively successful history of feeding America’s hungry schoolchildren. To continue doing that, the government must consider the ramifications of any significant changes they wish to impose and should respect the wishes of schools struggling to meet them.

Only then will we start to make meaningful changes in the way we eat.

Follow Connor Mabon on Twitter. Image courtesy of Big Stock Photo.