Got this great story from Give Me Something To Read, Instapaper’s companion site edited by Nostrich. I wanted to quote nearly every paragraph.
What’s great about this article is that it provides an intelligent counterpoint and reality check against all of the usual “the entire U.S. food system sucks and is killing our children but first making them fat” narrative of the documentaries and investigative-entertainment shows that we all enjoy watching.
The school administrators responsible for their food programs largely aren’t being ignorant, cheap, or irresponsible: they’re usually doing the best they can in the bureaucratic, societal mess they’re stuck in.
One of the big issues is that many kids won’t eat the school lunches if they’re not appealing, and nearly every alternative they’re likely to choose is less healthy. But if you give them too many appealing choices, they’ll just eat french fries and ice cream and ignore the healthier dishes. This West Virginia policy is genius:
Goff adds there are no outside vendors and “we do not permit a la carte sales.”
Author Jan Poppendieck explains that a la carte food “undermines the nutritional integrity of school meals.” She says kids “can pick at the parts of school lunch they feel like eating and then fill up with pastries. They have on their tray a meal that has been planned to meet nutrition standards, but then they can buy candy, and research shows that they do. Children who were in school without a la carte options ate more of the official lunch.”
Removing choice is often beneficial for everyone if those making the choice are likely to choose against their best interests.
And nearly every enforced regulation, while good-natured, may cause unintended workarounds:
School meals must meet two sets of standards to be reimbursable. One, they must provide a minimum amount of proteins, minerals, vitamins and calories. Two, meals must contain a maximum of 30 percent of calories from fat and 10 percent from saturated fat. […]
If a school district finds a meal has too much fat, it can raise the calorie count to lower the proportion of fat. “The quickest, least expensive fix … is to add sugar,” writes Poppendieck. “Sweetened, flavored milks have become a staple of the cafeteria, and desserts are making a comeback. An additional serving of vegetables, the element in which American diets are most glaringly deficient, would usually fill the calorie gap, but it is beyond the financial reach of most schools.”
Like The Wire, this article helps illustrate that the causes of what we see as an isolated issue — unhealthy cafeteria food — are actually broad, systemic failures, side effects, and incentives gone wrong with no simple fixes.
Worth a read.