Who wants children to eat more junk food?
Apparently the Trump administration does.
This seemed to be the Department of Agriculture’s concern when it announced plans last week to further reduce regulations for healthy meals at the nation’s public schools.
The Department’s new scheme would change the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 to include what critics call a “junk food loophole” in meals offered at public schools – usually breakfasts and lunches.
Currently, sweets and fried foods are allowed only once in a while as part of a balanced meal. But this new proposal would permit them to be offered every day.
Students could substitute healthy choices like fruits for things like blueberry muffins and replace green vegetables with French fries.
The media rushed to characterize the changes as an attack on Michelle Obama who championed the original legislation during her husband, Barack’s, administration. And – heck – maybe they’re right seeing as the Trump administration made the proposal on Mrs. Obama’s birthday.
But one needn’t guess at political motivations behind the move when it so obviously fits the pattern of school privatization – a way of conceptualizing education supported by both the Obama’s and Trump.
Let me be clear. School cafeterias generally are not privatized. They’re usually run by local school districts. However, the insistence that such programs turn a profit and make decisions based on sales rather than nutrition are symptomatic of the privatization mindset.
We didn’t always require everything to bring in money. We used to see things like education and journalism as public goods and absolved them from the need to generate financial gain.
But that seems like a long time ago.
The current administration’s claim that it’s rolling back restrictions to stop food waste and help public schools increase lunch profits is a case in point.
If profit is king, that’s all that matters. Who cares whether kids are getting better nutrition or not? What matters is the bottom line.
School lunches are not an opportunity to teach kids better eating habits. They are a financial transaction to enrich district budgets at the expense of the children enrolled there.
If children as young as 5 can’t make that decision on their own – well, caveat emptor.
The same goes with things like charter schools and high stakes standardized tests. It doesn’t matter if these things are better or worse for children. It matters whether they make money.
The invisible hand of the market is our pedagogue in chief.
It turns out that these things are rarely – if ever – in the best interests of children. Charter schools increase the likelihood of fiscal mismanagement, school segregation, prejudicial discipline policies, cherry picking which students to enroll – all while reducing transparency and fiscal accountability. Meanwhile, high stakes testing produces assessments that more clearly illuminate parental wealth than student learning – all while creating captive markets for testing, publishing and software companies.
The “junk food loophole” is just more of the same.
The administration contends that fewer middle and upper class kids are buying lunches at school when the choices are healthier. Meanwhile, among the 30 million students who depend on free and low-cost school lunches that are subsidized by the federal government, they say more are simply throwing away healthy foods than eating them.
The administration maintains that more food would be sold and less thrown out if children were given the choice to buy more cheeseburgers and fries than carrots and yogurt.
There certainly is anecdotal evidence to support this. Kids do seem to like junk food. As a middle school teacher, I’ve seen far too many kids bring Flaming Hot Cheetos and energy drinks for breakfast than take a free box of cereal, juice or even a piece of breakfast pizza.
And the number of kids who throw away fresh fruit because they’re forced to put it on their tray is heartbreaking.
However, we tend to focus on the negative and miss the positive.
This idea that kids don’t choose healthy foods actually flies in the face of the Department of Agriculture’s own research on the effects of the Obama-era rules. In its 2019 “School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study,” the department found no significant changes in the amount of food waste since the healthier rules were put in place, and also found that the healthier choices led to more kids participating in school meal programs.
The study also found scores for the Healthy Eating Index (which measures the quality of the diet) shot up drastically from 49.6 in 2009-2010 to 71.3 in 2014-2015.
So there is evidence that the program is actually increasing students’ healthy eating.
If we valued what’s best for children, we would continue – and maybe even strengthen – the legislation.
However, this newest proposal to weaken the law is the second time in three years that the federal government has undercut this policy.
In 2018, the Department started allowing schools to stop offering foods lower in sodium and higher in whole-grains.
That decision is being challenged in court by a coalition of six states and Washington, DC, on the grounds that it endangers student health.
If this second set of rollbacks are implemented, they too may be challenged in court.
Unfortunately the problem isn’t limited to mealtimes.
This is indicative of the school privatization mindset.
Reducing regulations requiring healthy foods in schools is a bad idea. But so are charter schools, high stakes testing, Common Core, runaway ed tech and a host of other market-based school policies.
The purpose of school is to teach children – not to exploit them as a captive market for financial gain.
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