Republicans Missing the Point on School Lunch

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It has been a point of controversy for half a decade now, but as the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 comes up for renewal, Republican congressmen believe the time is ripe for some changes. The standards, developed in conjunction with a multimillion dollar program featuring Michelle Obama as its primary spokesman, are set to expire in September. Republicans want to see those standards relaxed going forward.

In a hearing Tuesday, Rep. Todd Rokita of Indiana said he was unimpressed by the food he had been served while visiting a school in his home district. “They made me a batch of mashed potatoes under the regulations they have to get to in the next 10 years and they were just terrible.”

The primary subject at hand, of course, was not the quality of the food but rather the nutrition standards themselves. Approximately 95 percent of schools around the country are in compliance with the standards, but Republicans say that this adherence is causing billions of dollars in waste. The Agriculture Department has estimated that school districts participating in the program can expect to absorb more than $3 billion in costs over a five-year period.

In theory, this money should be offset by federal grants and subsidies, but lawmakers aren’t sure the taxpayers should be forced to subsidize meals that students are simply throwing into the trash. They would like to see the standards return to where they were in 2010, relaxing the requirements on whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and sodium. They would also like to address portion sizes, reacting to reports that many students – particularly those active in sports – were not getting the nutrition they needed.

At the end of the day, the important part isn’t this standard or that standard. The problem is a federal mandate telling American children how they must eat. It’s a foolish bit of federal overreach, disguised by the fact that it’s “optional.” Is there anything wrong with a public campaign to get kids and parents involved in healthier eating? No. But there’s a big difference between encouragement and enforcement.

By taking this weird approach of let’s have federal standards, but just not these federal standards, Republicans risk falling right into their old pro-corporate, anti-science stereotypes. This fight isn’t about yucky mashed potatoes, damn it. It’s about freedom and small government. Why is it such a challenge to find conservatives in the GOP who don’t fall back on such foolish arguments?