Black Market for Salt Arises in Indiana School Cafeterias

Published July 21, 2015

A black market for salt packets has developed among schoolchildren at a district in Indiana to help the students flavor their bland, unappetizing lunches.

The salt reduction is the result of a federal mandate initiated by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HFKA), legislation that was championed by First Lady Michelle Obama. The guidelines are designed to force children to eat healthier by forbidding them from consuming items they enjoy, but it has not achieved the desired results.

A school administrator from Hartford City, Indiana told a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee a “contraband economy” in food flavoring packets had arisen in response to HFKA. He says the kids have been caught bringing and even selling salt, pepper, and sugar in school to add taste to bland and tasteless cafeteria food.

Says Diet is Unhealthy

Julie Kelly, a cooking teacher, writer, and policy advisor for The Heartland Institute, which publishes Health Care News, humorously says this phenomenon should be counted as a win for the district because the new federal school lunch program has kids smuggling in salt and pepper instead of other illegal substances.

“In all seriousness, the new nutrition guidelines are not just unrealistic but could have the effect of repelling kids from healthy foods for a lifetime,” Kelly said. “The goals are admirable, but the approach is questionable. The truth is that you can still eat healthy food that contains reasonable levels of salt, sugar, and fat. Removing these ingredients from food not only strips flavor from every meal but denies children the vital nutrients that are crucial to their development.”

Kelly says the salt smuggling will only get worse over the next several years as the program require schools to cut sodium levels in half by 2022, when meals for grade-schoolers will be limited to only about a one-fourth teaspoon of sodium.

“There is no evidence to suggest this is a healthy approach to feeding kids,” Kelly said.

Protecting Kids from … Pickles

At a congressional hearing in June, one lawmaker told Tom Vilsack, the U.S. secretary of agriculture, a teacher at a local school had to ration pickles during lunchtime. The students were allowed only three pickles instead of four because the extra pickle would exceed salt limits, Kelly says.

“Is this really how educators should be spending their time, protecting 3rd graders from pickles?” Kelly asked.

Jeff Stier, a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research, says the problems result from a nanny-state mentality in which government doesn’t trust citizens to make sensible decisions. Stier says the premise behind HFKA is scientifically unsound, as it falsely assumes if something is unhealthy at high levels it is proportionately unhealthy at lower levels, and if something is unhealthy for some people it is harmful to all.

“Just because very high levels of salt are a problem for some, does not mean bringing levels down from moderate to low will add any gains,” Stier said.

‘Tastes Like Prison Food’

“I’ve heard critics of the school lunch program say it tastes like prison food,” Stier said.

“We’re creating a prison-like environment of trading contraband ingredients in school,” Stier said. “Look what we’re doing to our children. I think the best way is to give kids access to salty foods, sugary foods, and all the foods they want to ban. Give kids access to these products and, under supervision, let them learn how to consume them appropriately.”

Right now schools are teaching the exact opposite lesson, he says.

“I don’t want kids to grow up that way,” Stier said. “I want them to say, ‘Salt and sugar, I learned in school, it’s ok to eat in moderation.’ Otherwise it’s going to be, ‘Salt and sugar, oh my gosh, I can’t wait to get my hands on it when there are no adults looking.’

“By criticizing these government regulatory programs, I’m not saying kids should have unlimited, unfettered access to [these foods],” Stier said. “Instead, I’m saying this is a learning opportunity.”

Kenneth Artz ([email protected]) is managing editor of Health Care News.