March 10, 2017

National School Lunch Nutrition Standards Were A Mistake



This is Part Three in a series of posts analyzing problems with the National School Lunch Program. Click here for Part One and Part Two

With a new administration, observers anticipate that current school meal standards will be relaxed. This makes sense. The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA) turned previously broad school meal standards into a set of detailed nutritional guidelines. We all want children to be healthier, but it is far from clear that these regulations have been successful in achieving this.

Instead, national nutrition standards for school meals appear to have increased costs and decreased student satisfaction, leading over one million students to drop out of the program. Decentralizing nutritional standards to states, as countries like Canada do, would go a long way towards recognizing the uncertainties of nutritional science and accommodating local tastes.

Nutritional Standards Have Failed To Reduce Obesity

Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” initiative was one of the key drivers behind the addition of significantly stricter meal regulations under the HHFKA. The former First Lady’s public health campaign aimed to reverse the decades-long trend of rising child obesity in America. Obesity is linked to a multitude of health risks such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease, and the law’s stricter regulations were justified specifically on these grounds. The regulations are often remarkably specific, encompassing everything from ranges of acceptable calories and sodium content to an outright ban on white bread. They are also highly detailed, going as far as instituting weekly minimum servings of subcategories of vegetables (dark greens, legumes, starchy, etc).

Unfortunately, the drafters of the law forgot to consider whether the meals they were designing would taste any good. Children across the country rejected the new meals upon rollout because the food tasted bad. They even expressed their disgust by posting images of their meals on twitter with the hashtag #ThanksMichelleObama. The combination of increased compliance costs and millions fewer children in the program has gone on to place a significant strain on school meal administrators. Despite these failures, it is still conceivable that national meal regulations could be beneficial on net for encouraging healthier eating. However, there is good reason to believe that the law’s predicted health benefits have failed to materialize. Judged in terms of its own metric of success—reducing childhood obesity—the law appears to have failed. Derek Grills of Walden University wrote an entire dissertation on the issue and found no relationship between a school’s compliance with the regulations and childhood obesity. As he writes in his conclusion,

The HHFKA was passed before completion of any large-scale, longitudinal studies on the efficacy of school nutrition policy to affect high school obesity. While there are significant limitations to this study, the absence of a significant improvement in high school obesity rates between 2007 and 2012 for states with at least some compliance suggests the limitations of using federal policy affect high school obesity rates. The fact that a significant number of school boards have affirmatively opted-out of the HHFKA mandates highlights the risks of using a one-size fit all federal approach to a complex phenomenon.

Nutritional Standards Lock In Unsettled Science

Of course, obesity rates are just one metric with which to measure the standard’s success. However, the case for national standards improving other health outcomes, such as diabetes or heart disease, is for the moment purely speculative. Proponents of the law like to tout a number of studies finding increased blood serum vitamin concentrations, but if that is the goal, it would have been far more effective in terms of both cost and delivery to simply distribute multivitamins to school children.

Nutrition is an area where humility is a must. Many of the law’s specifications extend beyond the realm of settled science. The field of nutritional science is constantly evolving, with practitioners offering near constant tweaks and revisions to their previous recommendations. As a result, some of the meal regulations already look misguided, less than a decade after their enactment.

Consider the law’s ban on serving whole fat milk in schools. At the time, this rule was seen as a way of combating obesity through reducing fat consumption by children. But in the few years since, studies have called this provision into question, pointing out that a reduction in consumption of milk fat, which is composed of healthy fatty acids such as omega-3s, may simply be substituted by children for less healthy alternatives such as sugars. The standardization of unsettled science illustrates the folly of nationalized meal regulations.

One Size Does Not Fit All

The politicians involved in drafting these regulations also forgot to consider how their one-size-fits-all approach would impact local tastes. For instance, the ban on traditional tortillas prompted students in heavily-Hispanic New Mexico to throw out government-mandated whole-wheat alternatives in large quantities. Offending locals tastes, as in this case, has contributed to declines in participation and additional difficulties for local administrators. The incapability of accommodating local tastes has been among the biggest failures of our nationalized school meal standards, and in a country as diverse as the United States, it makes little sense for Arizona and Maine to share the exact same meal standards.

A simple rule of thumb is that children throw out foods that they don’t like. Recent studies quantifying plate waste in school lunches found that the new meal standards have led to greater amounts of fruits and vegetables being thrown into the garbage. This finding is backed up by studies of the regulation’s impact conducted by the Government Accountability Office, as well as the School Nutrition Association, representing school meal providers across the country. Even in schools where waste has not increased, the amount of food going to waste in school cafeterias is not insubstantial. In fact, most studies find that between 50 and 90 percent of served vegetables ultimately ended up in garbage.

Since the regulation, millions of children have dropped out of the National School Lunch Program entirely.  One study (often pointed to by advocates of stricter school lunch regulations) found the regulations led to greater nutrient consumption and decreasing waste in low-income schools. Yet, a closer look reveals that the study’s student sample shrank from 502 to 373 in the two year period following implementation, meaning the supposed gains were largely driven by a self-selection bias as many students cease participating.

Give States Control Of School Meals

To escape adverse effects of the meal regulations, some schools have pulled out of the National School Lunch Program entirely, as well. Speaking to a local reporter in Madison, Connecticut, Jean Fitzgerald, the Board Chair for a school district that left the program earlier this year explained: “While the intentions of the NSLP are good, we believe the imposed nutritional constraints prevent us from improving the culinary and financial aspects of our food service program.” She added that, “The Madison Public Schools remain committed to providing wholesome, nutritious meals to our students at reasonable prices.” Sadly, the loss of federal funding that comes with leaving the NSLP is too costly for most school districts.

A better tact would be to return regulatory authority over school meals to state governments, as is done in Australia and Canada. Across our northern border, school meal policies are set by provincial officials. This approach makes sense in a multicultural democracy such as Canada, where what works in the country’s English speaking interior may be unacceptable in Francophone Quebec. For cultural minorities that are often concentrated geographically, ensuring that meal standards accommodate local tastes is far easier to organize at the local level.

In summary, the one-size-fits-all approach to school meals has been a disappointment on multiple levels. The touted child obesity reductions have thus far failed to materialize. Not only is there is no evidence that strictly regulating school lunches has been an effective tool in the fight against child obesity, but the food taste so bad that millions of children have dropped out of the program entirely, including those in low-income households.  Current requirements are simply too inflexible, and cause unintended consequences for many school districts. It doesn’t have to be this way. Countries such as Canada and Australia have operated decentralized school meal regulation with great success. The U.S. should follow their example.