This week president Obama singed into law a new federal mandate requiring higher nutritional standards for the nation’s school lunches, vending machine contents, more fruits and vegetables, no more mystery meat, sodas, candy. Supporters excited because the prior set of criteria was 40 years old with quirky restrictions and allowances clearly not based in good nutritional habits; example skittles a yes, seltzer water no. Critics come down in 2 categories, those who think it goes too far usurping parental rights to decide what is best for their children and those who think it doesn’t go far enough because it doesn’t limit anything coming into schools from outside sources such as from home. One of the most controversial areas within the law involves limiting the number of sweets in the classroom for student parties, i.e. birthdays. When ABC news spoke about this portion of the bill, now law, they found it literally nicknamed the cupcake prevision making news because of one mom who did not want her children served cupcakes in school for any reason. Also they found the prevision falling in line with what schools had already done to prevent childhood obesity consolidating birthday parties to once a month, offering alternatives such as more recess or P.E.
Still it says something when Sara Palin comments on the law asking rhetorically who should be deciding what children eat parents or the government, calling it a nanny state run amuck and being absolutely right. Even more alarming are people blasting the bill because it does nothing to restrict unhealthy foods coming into schools, as if schools themselves, forget the government, have the right to say what is put in a child’s lunch, especially considering the number of items already being banned by schools currently, including caned fruit, fruit snacks, various nuts, string cheese, just to name a few with no real explanation as to why. Although safety is a likely answer when you think of pre K programs, young kindergarten kids and choking hazards, allergies; there has got to be a better way. Despite supporters pointing out that kids spend something like 60% of their meal times in school, bringing to light an attempt to help students from unstable households where food availability is questionable or families can only afford the wrong foods, therefore meals provided must be healthy, there are significant problems with this legislation and things leading up to it along with what will undoubtedly come after it.
Obviously passing a bill including something called a cupcake provision only fuels fanatical parents like the anti cupcake mom who failed to understand that if she did not want her children to be given cupcakes all she had to do was tell both her children and her children’s teachers, not go on a city, state, turned national crusade to remove them from all schools. Something not achieved as the prevision only limits them, listening to the woman being interviewed a few years ago talking about having seen family members and the devastating consequences of obesity, obesity related illness, it is clear the woman is having an exaggerated emotional response blatantly effecting how she raises her kids. However if school is the only place they ever got them, logically obesity is an unlikely result, leading people to wonder if it’s another case of a parent not wanting to parent or another popular trend wanting to remove all temptation by never letting their child taste offending, unhealthy foods. Credible research shows that children deprived of certain foods go on to overindulge in them as adults, causing the very obesity or illness parents want to preven; at the same time it can be socially awkward for the child being excluded from parties and other functions involving junk food, impacting socialization later in life as well. Coupling those examples could be the foundations of emotional eating in adults; other substantial research has indicated obesity, overeating in children, is often linked to unresolved emotional issues bullying, family turmoil, things that cannot be fixed changing school lunches.
Practical issues fly in the face of the law and the provision, which should bring questions about whether or not to implement it at all, and making said implementation harder than it looks. Many say it is about time for doing away with mystery meat, globs of goo no one can identify, but there is a reason why shows like Shaque’s Big Challenge, where kids were treated to fitness the basketball stars way while simultaneously talking on local school lunch programs, and naked chef Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, where he tried to reform various cities eating habits, only lasted one season. In the case of the latter it was only a few episodes, because schools are on tight budgets and they serve what children will eat, typically fatty, salty, sugary foods. Even when Shaq’s team managed to create a healthy meal using no more than the $2 allotted per child, even when there were no more pizza and tater tot combos to be had, healthy foods like steamed broccoli went directly into the trash. Part of this can be traced to cooks not utilizing age old, parent tested tricks to get kids to eat their vegetables, simple things like melting on healthy cheeses, feta or goat cheese, providing a variety of raw vegetables to dip in low fat ranch, or other dressing. Mixing celery and peanut butter, creating silly faces, with fruits and vegetables making healthy eating fun and interactive. Ingredients also play a role parents have long found ways to hide good foods in things children will eat or substituting common cooking/vegetable oil for more healthy ones, cooking brownies with applesauce not eggs.
Beginning school in the late 80’s I remember when snack for half-day kindergarten was a cookie and a carton of milk, and it’s not like the schools never served a vegetable. Sometimes quality not availability is the problem; going to junior high and high school throughout the 90’s and at the turn of the 21st century I remember wilted salad bars, canned fruits or vegetables I loathed because the frozen I got at home was much better, fresh fruits where over or under ripe. The apples given in sack lunches were leathery and sounded as if they were made of rubber when chewed, so of course avoided. Birthday parties where had as were Christmas and Valentines day parties involving sweets as well, and one third of the nation wasn’t obese, nor the nation’s children, a practice that had gone on for decades. Lunches brought from home often consisted of a sandwich, chips, juice drink, fruit snack or dessert item; again with a fraction of obesity rates. Meaning something else is the cause. Not to mention as long as people cooking the food expect kids to eat like adults, there will be little success and more food will line trashcans than student’s bellies; because kids are still kids and unless they are truly starving, routinely going without food, they will simply go home to food prepared the way they like to eat it.
Likewise a provision of this nature along with the knowledge that schools are limiting birthday parties to once a month on there own leaves more than one person scratching their head asking how many students are in the school, how large is the class, because surely not all parents provide snacks for their child’s birthday. At the same time all foods provided for said parties are not always unhealthy; certainly these parties are not happening daily due to class disruption, a problem that no doubt rules out weekly, indicating the once a month limit is an unnecessary statute, likely made in response to over emotional parents, or an attempt to stave off potential legal action, for schools with better things to focus on. Speaking of better things to occupy people’s, particularly lawmakers, time, considering the tax bill that almost didn’t happen, the long list of legislation attempting to be pushed though the lame duck session impacting the nation in the short term, the here and now, no one should have been debating, signing or otherwise messing around with a cupcake bill. A bill, turned law, that does nothing about the buddy packs, and other similar programs meant to send foods home with at risk, possibly chronically hungry students who may only get food during school, packs relying on donations from the community, local food banks including canned, nonperishable, not always healthy items, negating the partial purpose of the law to provide better meals to students forced by poverty to eat the wrong things at home.
One high school teacher is concerned about the new law banning fundraising bake sales; while she was assured it would not ban them outright only curtail the number of them them, that diminishes their ability to raise money for sports, extracurricular activities, class trips. And is exactly nothing the government should be involved in, is exactly where terms like nanny state and big brother get their power. Further it drastically reduces proceeds to be gained from said efforts when they have to switch to a different fundraising method containing more out of pocket costs as opposed to the relatively cheap ingredients used in cookies, rice crispy treats, brownies. Additionally not all of the baked goods are sold to other students and their families; they may be purchased by little old ladies who can no longer cook such items for themselves, families residing in the neighborhood, not attending that particular school, who use them as a treat in theirs or their children’s balanced lunch or dessert after dinner. Bake sales that should be exempt from the law because they are not part of the school lunch program, not retail products in vending machines and cost more than lunch money to purchase. Once children are in high school, working, making their own money, their own choices, they are not only old enough and capable enough to know good ones from bad, but we lose control over minor things like what they put in their mouth. Not to mention the significant amount of high schools that allow students off campus for lunch to frequent fast food places in the vicinity or the sheer fact that said establishments depend on popular student business to survive.
On par with most contested, highly debated issues, possibilities of what’s next must be brought to the table; opponents have already stated this law doesn’t go far enough, so does that mean we’ll have food czars checking our kid’s homemade lunches to see if they’re healthy enough, if not can we look forward to nasty letters from school officials berating parent choices complete with eye popping statistics, threatened expulsions? Worse yet a child forced onto the school lunch program either because of their weight, appearance or in order to stay in their current school? Is child services going to have an influx of calls from school personnel about what a student brings in their lunch; are we actually going to see parents of healthy weight children taken to court over lunch? Better yet when will we learn that regulation achieves little more than adding laws to the books and angering the public over loss of freedom? Even if these measures do positively effect obesity rates, something that is sketchy at best, we won’t know which law, program, initiative, provision was the most effective, because we are changing too many things at once. It’s a bad scientific experiment to have multiple variables changing at the same time, a factor coming into play later as lawmakers try to ascertain which programs to allocate funds to, as they fight constitutionality of parts of this law, fight repeal of it in the future, problems sure to come.
Healthy eating begins at home; in short that means ensuring families not only have enough food but can afford to make healthy choices. Cities and states just started putting more food stamp benefits in the hands of recipients for fresh fruits and vegetables; we haven’t had time to take stock of whether it is working before we try to tell them they can’t buy soda on food stamps, before we wage war on lunch, and if the government food police zealots have their way, not just what’s sold in the lunch room, vending machines rather what parents deem appropriate for their child. Forget initiatives to give extra benefit funds are not federal law and not found nationwide as of yet, forget the thousands of families who are struggling but do not qualify for assistance, even free and reduced lunch for their school age child, or those who can make lunch cheaper than any price of school provided lunch. Forget when it comes to freedom of choice for people and their children, no matter how poor, destitute or strapped for money, they will find a way to subvert such things in dealing with matters of principle.