I’ve reached the age where discussing “the way things used to be” with my children takes on the aura of a script for Dana Carvey’s “Grumpy Old Man” character. In Carvey’s world, the past was always tougher. The water was dirty, the toys were dangerous, and instead of movies, “we had one show in town — it was called stare at the sun!” Michelle Obama’s school lunch initiative, however, has managed to turn that world upside down. Whether you are 25 or 75, one look at the food served in schools today will leave you pining for the rich gastronomy of your grade-school cafeteria.
There is something amiss in Lunch Lady Land. Children are in revolt, school boards under fire. Even the School Nutrition Association is alarmed by the consequences of the first lady’s signature “Healthy Kids Act” of 2010. You can see for yourself, but be warned: The photos tweeted by students under the hashtag #thanksMichelleObama are not for the faint of heart. Forget about the battles over immigration, Iran, or Obamacare. The coming clash over school lunch will shape America’s future. After all, it will largely determine whether or not our children think all politicians are fools.
The problem here is not one of intent. Michelle Obama isn’t naive or misguided for believing that nutrition is important, or that sound menus might help improve children’s health. But it’s both naive and arrogant to think that federal legislation is the best mechanism for achieving those goals. In fact, it’s difficult to find a more egregious example of the nanny-state run amok.
Swept up by the euphoria of good intentions, a Democrat-led Congress pushed the bill through in 2010. The resulting regulations establish caps on calories, outlaw traditional flour-based pasta, and limit the fat content of milk. Don’t even think about serving white bread. You know things have gone too far when New York’s senators have to petition the federal government to declare “Greek yogurt” to be an acceptable source of protein for 8-year-olds. Senator Susan Collins’s victorious defense of the Maine potato was a tour de force.
The unintended consequences of this unprecedented meddling would be laughable if it didn’t represent such a tragic waste of time and money. A government audit reveals that during the past two years, more than 1 million students have walked away from school lunch programs. More than 80 percent of schools report an increase in the amount of food waste. And school lunch administrators report a significant increase in costs.
In an interview with Cooking Light magazine, the first lady reassures us that all will be fine once we’ve raised a generation whose only experience was horrible school lunches. “If all they know are whole grains and vegetables, by the time they’re graduating . . . they won’t know anything different.” That sounds more like indoctrination than education, all the more so when her own children attend private schools that are exempted from the rules.
Set aside for a moment the ridiculous level of micromanagement — would it really be a national scandal if the staff at your local elementary school indulged students with 2 percent milk? The more fundamental question is why we won’t allow states to set reasonable goals for feeding their own students. Does Michelle Obama feel that school administrators in Nashua, Newton, or Hartford are less trustworthy than federal bureaucrats?
Equally important, doesn’t the federal government have anything better to do? Apparently, the first lady doesn’t think so, nor do the legislators who pushed for the sweeping rules in the first place. For them, it’s about control and the kind of self-gratification that comes from writing bills that tell other people to do the right thing — or else. It’s also about the paternalistic and dangerous idea that anything that’s a good idea should be a law, and preferably a federal law: Wear your seat belt, eat whole-grain pasta, and — please! — only 1.8 gallons per toilet flush.
No one should condone poor decision-making, and no one should belittle the value of maintaining a healthy, balanced diet. But the fact that some people will make poor lifestyle choices is the natural result of a government that allows people to make choices in the first place. The alternative — a government that actively legislates, regulates, and manipulates personal behavior — is far worse.
These rules aren’t the end of the world. They’re just foolish, expensive, and statist. The federal government should get out of the menu business. It’s hard to believe, but school food was better in the old days. Just ask any 12-year-old — or a grumpy old man. It’s one thing on which they can finally agree.
John E. Sununu, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire, writes regularly for the Globe.