Is the New School Lunch Law an Example of Government Run Amok?

Published December 22, 2010

Ben Boychuk Yes, in the worst way

It’s a fair bet the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act won’t produce healthier or especially well-fed kids, much as No Child Left Behind has done little to produce high academic achievement. The universal law of unintended consequences trumps federal law every time.

Everyone can acknowledge obesity is a big, expensive problem. Trouble is, top-down mandates always come at freedom’s expense. Success is never guaranteed, and the bureaucratic red tape rarely goes away.

California has already traveled far down this road, with great success at making kids miserable but middling success at making them thin. Los Angeles Unified School District banned soda and junk food sales in 2003, and Gov. Schwarzenegger cheerfully signed legislation in 2004 to do the same statewide. The kids are still fat – about 24 percent of California middle-schoolers are “obese” or “severely obese,” according to the journal Pediatrics – though obesity rates seem to have leveled off somewhat.

Under the new federal school nutrition law, the feds will be empowered to regulate fundraisers where food is sold – i.e., bake sales. At some risk of exaggeration, just imagine federal food cops busting PTA moms and varsity cheerleaders for peddling unauthorized snickerdoodles and Rice Krispie treats.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says he doesn’t “intend” to ban bake sales in schools, especially if they’re infrequent. (Federal regulators will decide what “infrequent” means, alas.) But the language of the law clearly allows for such a ban. Maybe not next year. Perhaps in the future, when a zealot from the Center for Science in the Public Interest occupies the more moderate Vilsack’s desk.

Of course, every expert on nutrition and good health will tell you diet is part of the anti-obesity equation. Another factor is exercise. Kids are more sedentary. Usually, television and video games get the blame. Some blame also falls on parents unwilling to say “No” to their kids at the fast food drive-thru.

But as it turns out, No Child Left Behind is part of that equation, too.

One unintended consequence of the 2002 federal law has been the steady erosion of recess and physical education. Time on the playground is time not spent preparing for those all-important standardized tests, which determine whether a school is succeeding or failing under strict federal adequate yearly progress requirements.

A federal mandate arguably helped make the childhood obesity problem worse. Does anyone really think another mandate banning bake sales would make it better?

Ben Boychuk is managing editor of the Heartland Institute’s School Reform News.