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PULLMANN: Michelle Obama’s school lunch program leaves children hungry

Calorie diktat causes open rebellion

- - Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Students nationwide are boycotting new federal school lunch rules, reverting to brown-bagging it in a mini-revival of individual freedom among the milk-drinking crowd.

Michelle Obama's signature 2010 legislation, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFK), included rules that banned some foods, such as whole and 2 percent milk, and rationed others, such as potatoes and peas. From Wisconsin to Kansas, student athletes, in particular, are complaining the 850-calorie lunch limit embodied in nacho plates containing eight tortilla chips just doesn't provide enough food for their growing, hard-working bodies.

Mrs. Obama pushed for the law because, as she said, "all children should have the basic nutrition they need." Odd, then, that it is actually depriving children of basic nutrition. It's almost as if one-size-fits-all central diktats hurt people or something. Just wait until the feds roll out their clothing store, Procrustes Limited.

Contradicting its Orwellian name, the law has sparked real-life hunger games.

"Now [lunch] is worse-tasting, smaller-sized and higher-priced," a Wisconsin high school senior told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, echoing some of the problems of government these days. Hungry Minnesota students are "scavenging the lunchrooms after lunch," and Kansas students are bringing lunch to school in droves and angrily writing state representatives.

Leftists are all about social activism for the schoolyard, but it's not likely they'll appreciate this rebellion.

The new rules have also instigated waves of parental protests since 2011, when school districts first began implementing mandated cost increases and ingredient rationing. The families who do pay for school lunches balked at paying more for menus that are ill-suited to individual needs and depend on subsidy increases neither states nor the federal government can afford.

In 2011, the National Governors Association criticized HHFK's "short-term" and "inadequate" funding. Nothing has changed. In essence, the law imprints a federal hallmark: It taxes citizens more, then returns part of their money as long as they dance to the government's tune to get it. When normal folks do that, we call it bribery.

The federal government spends approximately $11 billion a year on the national school lunch program, with HHFK adding another $7 billion over five years. Taxpayers pay national school lunch costs entirely or mostly for 39 percent of the nation's schoolchildren, and partially for all the rest. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) offers bonuses to states that increase their free-lunch rolls and in 2014, it will make every state offer a federal program requiring all students at participating schools to eat taxpayer-funded breakfasts, lunches and snacks at no direct cost to any student, regardless of their ability to bring or pay for food.

Food welfare constitutes approximately 65 percent of the USDA's budget. National school lunch is one of many federal entitlements, and like the others, it has ballooned dangerously in recent years despite HHFK supporters' promises the law would make school lunch "sustainable." Since 2006, enrollment has increased 172 percent.

The USDA deliberately incorporated food welfare to expand its power, Montana State University professor and agricultural economist Vincent Smith told me. That's why urban and rural members of Congress continually unite in refusing to control the agency's budget. Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican, has introduced legislation to repeal the calorie cap. It's a decent appetizer, but much more needs to be done.

It took federal overreach to make children consider homemade lunches cool, unintentionally promoting some individual responsibility our culture desperately needs. Congress should listen to its customers and return control over school lunch to those who provide it and eat it.

Joy Pullmann is managing editor of School Reform News and a research fellow in education at the Heartland Institute.