The First Lady’s plan to rejuvenate school lunches hasn’t been going very well, so naturally the solution is a column suggesting Republicans are child-hating extremists for wanting to fix it.
In Tomasky’s columns (there really is only one, a Platonic ideal in which enlightened Democrats battle benighted Republicans) you always know who is to blame:
it should not come as a surprise to us that now Republicans want more
fat kids. And the reason Republicans want more fat kids is
straightforward and predictable: Michelle Obama wants fewer of them. And
that’s all they need to know. If she’s fer it, they’re agin’ it.
The reality is a bit more nuanced. The Healthy, Hungry Free Kids Act of 2010 has been about as popular with students as Obamacare has been with their parents. Last year the General Accounting Office traveled around to school districts to see how the implementation of the new program was going. They reported problems in all 8 of the districts they visited:
because USDA regulations restrict the amounts of meats and grains that
can be served in school lunches each week, all eight districts GAO
visited needed to modify or eliminate popular menu items. These changes
sometimes led to negative student reactions.
The anodyne GAO report doesn’t really do this justice. As the NY Times reported back in 2012, negative student reactions included organized boycotts, social media campaigns and eventually the decision by over a million and a half students to simply stop buying the lunches. This is the first time in a decade the number of students buying meals has dropped. Back to the GAO report:
The meat and grain restrictions also led to smaller lunch entrees, making it difficult for
some schools to meet minimum calorie requirements for lunches without
adding items, such as gelatin, that generally do not improve the
nutritional quality of lunches.
Again, the GAO doesn’t really convey the color commentary of what was happening. You can see photos tweeted of some of the lunches here. They do look pretty skimpy. There’s even a parody video titled “We Are Hungry” created to protest the dinky meals required by law.
Thanks in part to the reaction of students, the USDA relented, at least temporarily. Here’s the GAO report again explaining the decision to lift the limits through 2014:
In response to feedback from states and
districts regarding operational challenges caused by the meat and grain
restrictions, USDA lifted the limits temporarily, first for the
remainder of school year 2012-2013 and then for school year 2013-2014.
But the temporary change created it’s own problem. The GAO report states, “because the change was seen as temporary, the eight districts GAO visited made only marginal changes to their menus.” That’s why the first recommendation the GAO report makes is, ” the Secretary of Agriculture should permanently remove the weekly
meat/meat alternate and grain maximums for school lunch defined in
Another problem with the program is the sheer waste of foot it entails. The 2010 regulations mandate that students must take fruits or vegetables if they buy a school lunch. They can not refuse them. The School Nutrition Association cites research by Cornell and Brigham Young which found a 100% increase in food waste. They estimate that $684 million in food is going into the trash every school year.
Finally there is the issue of cost. Because of the fresh fruit and vegetable requirements, the USDA estimates the new lunches cost about ten cents more to produce. But the government only allotted an additional six cents per lunch to meet the new standards. As a result, the School Nutrition Association says 1,445 schools have dropped out of the program. And according to a spokesperson for the National School Boards Association many school boards around the country are asking for permission to opt out.
It’s at this point that Republicans led by Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) introduced a waiver provision into a House spending bill. The response of the White House has been to announce a campaign led by the First Lady to defend the law. Yesterday, in a moment somewhat lacking in self-reflection, the First Lady told a roundtable organized by the White House, “The last thing we can afford to do right now is play politics with our kids’ health.” Meanwhile, the head of the School Nutrition Association says they don’t want to undo the program just allow time for smoother implementation.
And that’s where Michael Tomasky comes in. It’s no good, politically, to allow this to become a contest between two somewhat reasonable points of view. It’s better to portray this as if there is one side who cares about kids and another that has no rational justification for wanting to slow the adoption of a troubled program. This being Tomasky, you can probably guess how he ties it all together with a flourish.
Sugar makes people fatter and, in all likelihood, dumber. But what does that matter to Republicans? I mean, hey; more fat and dumb kids just means more future Republican voters.