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Trump Could Improve School Lunches By Ignoring Them

Sometimes backing into a policy solution works just as well as pursuing a goal. Sometimes... not so much.

The new school year is revving up and so it the seemingly endless pre-heated debate over the future of school food. With a Farm Bill set to go in front of congress and a freshly staffed Department of Agriculture, President Trump is in a prime position to change what’s on the menu. The unexpected thing is that he might affect meaningful and positive change by jettisoning Obama-era nutrition requirements and allowing school districts to pursue their own strategies for keeping kids fed. It’s a laissez-fare, let’s-see-what-happens approach that could result in people like Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue making a play for federal dollars or better, fresher food served in the buffet. In all likelihood, the result of reform–deregulation, really–could cut both ways.

While a bit obtuse and seemingly offhanded, Trump’s criticism of Obama’s lunch policies hasn’t been totally unreasonable. But reasonable criticism and policy are two different things and a Trump policy (or vision) has not been forthcoming. Whatever that turns out to be, it will emerge from cuts to the Farm Bill and the Department of Agriculture, which is likely going to shed roughly 20 percent of its weight. Both these actions would significantly reduce federal funding from school lunches. That’s a curious half measure.

The Obama administration’s sweeping nutrition-forward school lunch reform, known as the Health Hunger-Free Kids Act, while noble in its effort to curb obesity and hunger, was deeply flawed. School lunch has proven nearly impossible to control on a national level. There are more than 30 million lunches served per day and each school has its own particular challenges. As the Times points out, “the taste and quality can hinge on something as simple as the attitude of a principal or a lack of proper kitchen equipment.” And then you have the hurdles faced by urban institutions versus a rural ones and the fact that regional tastes dictate a particular school’s menu (students in a majority Hispanic school, for example, once tossed away the whole wheat tortillas mandated by the Health Hunger-Free Kids Act because they cracked when folded).

school lunch

In short, a one-size fit all set of lunch guidelines hasn’t worked. In speaking to the Times, Betrand Weber, director of culinary and nutrition services at the Minneapolis Public Schools wisely stated that ‘“Other than mandating more fruits and vegetables, the new regulations haven’t really changed anything except force manufacturers to re-engineer product.” And, per the libertarian Niskanen Center, “national nutrition standards for school meals appear to have increased costs and decreased student satisfaction, leading over one million students to drop out of the program.”

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The government wants kids to eat healthy food. The easiest way to achieve this is to serve healthy food kids like. But, as any parent knows, that’s tricky. It’s family dinner writ national.

It would be fairly easy to dismiss a totally free market case for decentralizing nutritional standards if it weren’t for Canada. “Across our northern border, school meal policies are set by provincial officials,” Niskanen’s think tankers point out. “This approach makes sense in a multicultural democracy such as Canada, where what works in the country’s English speaking interior may be unacceptable in Francophone Quebec. For cultural minorities that are often concentrated geographically, ensuring that meal standards accommodate local tastes is far easier to organize at the local level.”

That’s a delicately made case for market-driven food, something that any parent who has said no in a grocery store has, in doing so, dismissed as a policy solution. But it’s also not crazy. The question becomes how to execute on that while also doing the really, really good thing the Health Hunger-Free Kids Act accomplished: Feeding 30 million children healthy food. The stakes are high. The Harvard School of Public Health, pointing to a New England Journal of Medicine study, has noted that rolling back the act would be “a threat to children’s health, development, and academic success.”

Ultimately, cuts may be a sign that the Trump administration, while dismissive to all things Obama, isn’t interested in pursuing a cohesive national school lunch agenda. That’s not necessarily the worst thing depending on what implementation of potential new programs looks like. By making the process state controlled, the White House could solve the problem of the one-size fits all school model. But that policy could also set up both cash-strapped educators and states to fail. There’s risk and there might be reward as well. It’s hard to know right now.