Senator Tom Harkin, School Nutritionist

The latest newsworthy assault by the Nanny State on freedom and federalism is Senate Bill 771, or The Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act of 2007.    Actually, call it a renewed assault.  The legislation's chief sponsor is Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry.  Harkin is conspicuous for his leadership on health and nutrition issues.  Representative Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) has sponsored an identical measure (House Resolution 1363).  The measures, if passed, would continue Washington's iron grip on school cafeterias and extend the Feds' reach to what foods and beverages are sold in schools anywhere at any time.

On the face of it, the measures seem innocuous enough, do-good attempts by Senator Harkin, Representative Woolsey and cosponsors to fight childhood obesity by improving the diets of kids from pre-school through high school.  But it begs the questions: "What business is it of Washington politicians to decide what kids eat at schools in Des Moines, Santa Rosa, Anchorage or Canton?  And why does Senator Harkin, the prime mover behind this effort, and a handful of government-approved experts, know better than parents and local schools what kids should eat?"

The Senate and House bills are yet more evidence of what happens when Washington gets its hooks into activities that are historically and naturally the province of individuals and communities.  Federal support for school meals began when the school lunch program was created by Congress in 1946.  However well-intended, the program was, in large part, a sop to farmers and other agricultural interests that benefited from taxpayer money.  Those tax dollars were earmarked for the purchase of "nutritious agricultural commodities"-a lot of surplus milk, butter and cheese, in other words.  In 1966, school breakfast programs were added conditionally and, then, permanently, in 1975. 

The rationale for the 1946 program and its extension in 1966 was that too many kids were going hungry, and if not hungry, then malnourished.  No doubt, in pockets throughout the country, many rural, where large concentrations of poor children lived, school meals were a benefit.  But these programs weren't targeted only at the neediest school districts-in the Ozarks, for example-but in time, grew to encompass all districts.  As of 2005, Washington spent approximately $9.5 billion annually on school meal and commodities programs.

The argument put forward now is that kids from Appalachia to upscale Westchester County aren't hungry anymore.  In fact, they're overeating, and, according to research, began doing so in the 1960s, despite claims then that hunger or malnutrition was the primary threat to kids.  The kicker is that due to rigid federal regulations, meant to give hungry kids plenty of fat, starch and calories in school meals, Washington has been contributing handsomely to the "Childhood Obesity Epidemic" for decades.  If schools wanted federal dollars for meal programs, then they had to abide by Washington's rules, and those rules were designed for hungry kids-not for kids who are adding inches to their waistlines.

Now, Senator Harkin wishes to remedy the problem by updating the definition of "food of minimal nutritional value," as well as aggregate to Washington broad authority over what foods are sold "outside the school meal programs, on the school campus and at any time during the school day."  While this may be meritorious in one sense, in another, it raises questions: "Where has Congress been all these years?"  Why has it taken so long for Congress to recognize that Washington is actually doing harm by insisting on nutritional standards for school meals that are so out of sync with the changing realities of kids' diets? 

The answer isn't simple, but it can be simplified.  Washington's tendency, in the first place, is to create one-size-fits-all rules to accompany the taxpayer dollars it redistributes.  And not only does Washington lack the capacity to adapt its rules to the thousands of communities that comprise this large and diverse nation, it lacks the ability to change quickly, due to the inherent cumbersomeness of the national legislature and the federal bureaucracy.  Contributing to this inertia are the many interests that have a stake in the status quo, largely financial.  And, in the case of Washington politicians who curry favor with these interests, it's about contributions, prestige and the power that goes with dispensing billions of dollars and overseeing gargantuan programs.  If change comes, more often than not, these politicians need to see their advantage.

Given that Washington hasn't proven to be a very adept or adroit school nutritionist, what makes anyone think that yet another uniform approach to nutrition, coupled with controls over what other foods are sold on campuses, will do the trick?  And why is Washington in the business of writing menus in the first place? 

Parents and Schools Should Decide What Kids Eat 

One can go very deeply into the weeds finding fault with Washington's meddling with school meal programs.  The same holds true for the Senate and House bills.  But what these initiatives represent is a reissuing of a decades-old proclamation, in stronger terms, by Congressional leaders: that Washington knows better than parents and schools what is best for their children.  More broadly, it is an article of no faith.  Parents and schools either can't, or won't, act in the best interests of their kids.  Without Senator Harkin writing school menus, without the Feds padlocking soda and snack machines, and without an army of junk food police patrolling school halls to confiscate stashes of Twinkies or Fritos, why, kids would go from fat to freakish. 

Certainly, no one is trivializing good nutrition.  In recent years, there has been an increasing flow of information from the health community about what constitutes good diets.  Most certainly, this information is getting to parents and will have a positive influence on most of them, not only in how kids are fed at home but how they're fed in schools.  It is the hallmark of a free society that most people, being sensible, make changes when presented with reliable information and persuasive arguments. 

But that may not be good enough for Senator Harkin and his cohorts.  Senate Bill 771 and House Resolution 1363 betray a fundamental lack of trust by Mr. Harkin and Ms. Woolsey in the very people who elect them to office.  It demonstrates that they don't believe that change will come, not unless, very belatedly, Washington dictates it. 

These measures are another assault, among many assaults, on the notion that free people make the best decisions and that government closest to the people governs most effectively.  Proper Congressional legislation would liberate school cafeterias from the shackles of federal government mandates.  And Washington should keep its hands off any other foods sold on campuses.  If Washington wants to provide guidelines or recommendations, fine.  But let schools across the nation, in concert with parents, assess the dietary needs of their kids and write the menus.     

But, then, for Senator Harkin, and too many of his colleagues, such would appear to be a radical and dangerous idea: the idea the Founders called federalism. 

Jeffrey Schmidt is a twenty-five year political and public affairs consultant.  He resides in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
The latest newsworthy assault by the Nanny State on freedom and federalism is Senate Bill 771, or The Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act of 2007.    Actually, call it a renewed assault.  The legislation's chief sponsor is Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry.  Harkin is conspicuous for his leadership on health and nutrition issues.  Representative Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) has sponsored an identical measure (House Resolution 1363).  The measures, if passed, would continue Washington's iron grip on school cafeterias and extend the Feds' reach to what foods and beverages are sold in schools anywhere at any time.

On the face of it, the measures seem innocuous enough, do-good attempts by Senator Harkin, Representative Woolsey and cosponsors to fight childhood obesity by improving the diets of kids from pre-school through high school.  But it begs the questions: "What business is it of Washington politicians to decide what kids eat at schools in Des Moines, Santa Rosa, Anchorage or Canton?  And why does Senator Harkin, the prime mover behind this effort, and a handful of government-approved experts, know better than parents and local schools what kids should eat?"

The Senate and House bills are yet more evidence of what happens when Washington gets its hooks into activities that are historically and naturally the province of individuals and communities.  Federal support for school meals began when the school lunch program was created by Congress in 1946.  However well-intended, the program was, in large part, a sop to farmers and other agricultural interests that benefited from taxpayer money.  Those tax dollars were earmarked for the purchase of "nutritious agricultural commodities"-a lot of surplus milk, butter and cheese, in other words.  In 1966, school breakfast programs were added conditionally and, then, permanently, in 1975. 

The rationale for the 1946 program and its extension in 1966 was that too many kids were going hungry, and if not hungry, then malnourished.  No doubt, in pockets throughout the country, many rural, where large concentrations of poor children lived, school meals were a benefit.  But these programs weren't targeted only at the neediest school districts-in the Ozarks, for example-but in time, grew to encompass all districts.  As of 2005, Washington spent approximately $9.5 billion annually on school meal and commodities programs.

The argument put forward now is that kids from Appalachia to upscale Westchester County aren't hungry anymore.  In fact, they're overeating, and, according to research, began doing so in the 1960s, despite claims then that hunger or malnutrition was the primary threat to kids.  The kicker is that due to rigid federal regulations, meant to give hungry kids plenty of fat, starch and calories in school meals, Washington has been contributing handsomely to the "Childhood Obesity Epidemic" for decades.  If schools wanted federal dollars for meal programs, then they had to abide by Washington's rules, and those rules were designed for hungry kids-not for kids who are adding inches to their waistlines.

Now, Senator Harkin wishes to remedy the problem by updating the definition of "food of minimal nutritional value," as well as aggregate to Washington broad authority over what foods are sold "outside the school meal programs, on the school campus and at any time during the school day."  While this may be meritorious in one sense, in another, it raises questions: "Where has Congress been all these years?"  Why has it taken so long for Congress to recognize that Washington is actually doing harm by insisting on nutritional standards for school meals that are so out of sync with the changing realities of kids' diets? 

The answer isn't simple, but it can be simplified.  Washington's tendency, in the first place, is to create one-size-fits-all rules to accompany the taxpayer dollars it redistributes.  And not only does Washington lack the capacity to adapt its rules to the thousands of communities that comprise this large and diverse nation, it lacks the ability to change quickly, due to the inherent cumbersomeness of the national legislature and the federal bureaucracy.  Contributing to this inertia are the many interests that have a stake in the status quo, largely financial.  And, in the case of Washington politicians who curry favor with these interests, it's about contributions, prestige and the power that goes with dispensing billions of dollars and overseeing gargantuan programs.  If change comes, more often than not, these politicians need to see their advantage.

Given that Washington hasn't proven to be a very adept or adroit school nutritionist, what makes anyone think that yet another uniform approach to nutrition, coupled with controls over what other foods are sold on campuses, will do the trick?  And why is Washington in the business of writing menus in the first place? 

Parents and Schools Should Decide What Kids Eat 

One can go very deeply into the weeds finding fault with Washington's meddling with school meal programs.  The same holds true for the Senate and House bills.  But what these initiatives represent is a reissuing of a decades-old proclamation, in stronger terms, by Congressional leaders: that Washington knows better than parents and schools what is best for their children.  More broadly, it is an article of no faith.  Parents and schools either can't, or won't, act in the best interests of their kids.  Without Senator Harkin writing school menus, without the Feds padlocking soda and snack machines, and without an army of junk food police patrolling school halls to confiscate stashes of Twinkies or Fritos, why, kids would go from fat to freakish. 

Certainly, no one is trivializing good nutrition.  In recent years, there has been an increasing flow of information from the health community about what constitutes good diets.  Most certainly, this information is getting to parents and will have a positive influence on most of them, not only in how kids are fed at home but how they're fed in schools.  It is the hallmark of a free society that most people, being sensible, make changes when presented with reliable information and persuasive arguments. 

But that may not be good enough for Senator Harkin and his cohorts.  Senate Bill 771 and House Resolution 1363 betray a fundamental lack of trust by Mr. Harkin and Ms. Woolsey in the very people who elect them to office.  It demonstrates that they don't believe that change will come, not unless, very belatedly, Washington dictates it. 

These measures are another assault, among many assaults, on the notion that free people make the best decisions and that government closest to the people governs most effectively.  Proper Congressional legislation would liberate school cafeterias from the shackles of federal government mandates.  And Washington should keep its hands off any other foods sold on campuses.  If Washington wants to provide guidelines or recommendations, fine.  But let schools across the nation, in concert with parents, assess the dietary needs of their kids and write the menus.     

But, then, for Senator Harkin, and too many of his colleagues, such would appear to be a radical and dangerous idea: the idea the Founders called federalism. 

Jeffrey Schmidt is a twenty-five year political and public affairs consultant.  He resides in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania