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School meal mandates lead to hunger, waste

Problem: Too many kids come to school hungry, and kids can’t keep up with course work if their stomachs are growling. Government solution: Pour billions of taxpayer dollars into school meals.

Problem: Too many kids are fat. Well-fed kids might fare better in the classroom than hungry kids, but obesity causes too many costly long-term health problems. Government solution: Offer children only foods and drinks that are deemed healthy, even if those foods are more expensive.

Problem: Too many kids go hungry at school because they don’t want to eat the healthy, expensive stuff the government do-gooders push on them, resulting in poor classroom performance and trash cans filled with perfectly good, taxpayer-subsidized food. Government solution: What’s the problem?

Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced all-new restrictions on what schools can serve, taking even more products that kids might want to eat or drink out of vending machines and off cafeteria lines. The rules also allow states to handcuff bake sales.

What’s next? Feeding tubes?

The rules were put in place despite the findings of the Government Accountability Office, which visited eight school districts around the country and found that mandated healthier foods led to increased food waste and decreased participation in the school meal programs. In testimony, Sandra Ford, president of the School Nutrition Association and director of food and nutrition services for a school district in Bradenton, Fla., said her district would lose up to $975,000 a year if it eliminated many of the popular, less-healthy “a la carte” foods schools currently sell.

Earlier this year, the Las Vegas Review-Journal told of how federal policy encourages prolific food waste at Clark County School District campuses. The system doesn’t receive federal reimbursement for meals unless a child takes a full breakfast. The result: A student who already ate breakfast and only wants juice is told by staff to get a pastry and apple slices in addition to the juice, and everything but the juice ends up in the trash. Even though all the food is individually wrapped, it can’t be taken home or saved for lunch.

Virginia Beck, Clark County’s assistant director of food services, said area schools already comply with a USDA mandate to serve larger portions of fruits and vegetables with meals. “We’re definitely seeing more fruits and vegetables in the trash cans,” she said this week. Sure, that’s healthy.

When you pile too many heavy-handed good intentions on top of each other, they eventually come in conflict with one another. The solution to this predictable problem is less intervention, not more. One-size-fits-all government never works. Get the USDA out of menu planning. Let states, school districts and parents decide how to feed kids. Our students will be less likely to go hungry, there will be less food waste and it won’t cost taxpayers as much money. Problem solved.

This editorial appeared July 3 in the Las Vegas Review-Journal

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