School Lunches Made Me a Libertarian

Not really. I never ate cafeteria lunches. My mom wouldn’t waste money on such frivolities when I could pack my own lunch. Which was better than having her pack it for me, since her idea of a ham sandwich was just a single very thin slice of ham between two slices of white bread. She might as well have just given me the bread, for all the meat that was in it. But, hey, we were kind of poor, but not poor enough for school lunches. Or maybe it was before poor kids started getting free school lunches, I’m not sure.

In truth, I always had enough to eat. I remember a few times when dinner was just cornmeal mush because money was tight, but in general I always had a bowl of cereal for breakfast and a sandwich for lunch (even if mom did badger me about using too much ham, or putting the peanut butter on too thick…she “wasn’t made of money, you know”). But not every kid does, and if you don’t have food, it’s damn near impossible to learn. The brain uses a lot of caloric energy, and when the body is short of calories, the higher brain functions shut down as an energy-saving measure. This probably kept your hunter-gatherer ancestors from starving to death by thinking about philosophy when they should have been out gathering; today it keeps poor kids from getting an education that will help them escape poverty.

So I’ve been a fan of free school lunches for the little tykes, and have cheered the addition of free school breakfasts. Libertarianism’s sticking point is kids, because it’s an ideology that assumes competent adults, so I’ve never had much qualms about saying, “but there’s one government welfare program I can wholeheartedly support.”

Until now. James Bovard had a USA Today op-ed a few weeks back arguing that free school lunches are a leading factor in childhood obesity and diabetes. Uh oh. I like Bovard’s work overall, but he’s a bit more libertarian-confident than I am, so I hoped that maybe he was just tossing out a light-on-facts ideological screed.

No such luck. I looked up his sources, and here’s what they say.

From the University of Michigan Health System:

A team of U-M Cardiovascular Center researchers collected and analyzed health behavior questionnaires completed by 1,297 sixth graders at Michigan public schools over a period of almost three years. They discovered that children who consume school lunches were more likely to be overweight or obese (38.8 percent vs. 24.4 percent) than those who ate lunches brought from home. Children who ate school meals were more than twice as likely to consume fatty meats (25.8 percent vs. 11.4 percent) and sugary drinks (36 percent vs. 14.5 percent), while also eating fewer fruits and vegetables (16.3 percent vs. 91.2 percent).

Researchers also found these children had higher levels of low-density lipid cholesterol (or “bad cholesterol”) than their home-fed counterparts. Students reported on what they consumed throughout the day—not just at lunchtime.

There could be some SES confounds in those findings, but that wouldn’t let school lunches off the hook. It’s true that those kids might not be getting healthy food at home, but the school lunches themselves are unhealthy, and their breakfasts are worse.

Maybe the health cost would be worthwhile if academic performance really did improve, but a study published byThe Journal of Child Nutrition and Managementconcluded that there was no such benefit.

The availability of a universal-free breakfast significantly increased school breakfast participation but had little impact on other characteristics, including academic achievement test scores, attendance, tardiness, health, and discipline. Although treatment school students were more likely to consume a nutritionally substantive breakfast than control school students, there was almost no difference in average food and nutrient intakes at breakfast or over the course of the day. It should be noted that these findings do not negate the importance of students eating breakfast, instead, they suggest that offering free school breakfast to all elementary school students would not, on average, improve academic performance or behavior beyond what already occurs in schools offering the SBP.

There appear to be multiple reasons for the bad outcomes, including kids who actually eat two breakfasts (home and at school–my own daughter did this for a while, until we put a stop to it because her school breakfasts were not free, and–shades of my mom!–damned if I was going to pay for two breakfasts a day), school districts not having the sense to not serve high fat and high sodium foods, and of course pressure from agricultural interests–the school lunch and breakfast programs are, after all, run by the Department of Agriculture, notorious for being a clientele agency, and of course many–perhaps all–states are highly responsive to local ag interests (according to political scientists Ray Wolfinger and Steve Rosenstone, farmers vote, regardless of age or education, because their heavy reliance on and knowledge of government ag policies is functionally the equivalent of higher education for them, as far as influence on likelihood of voting).

This is very frustrating. If government’s going to do anything beyond a legal system and national defense giving kids a decent chance in life ought to be it. I think my libertarianism tends to be less ideological than pragmatic, so this failure just reinforces it, but not in a way that I find at all satisfying. There’s no smug satisfaction that of course government can’t even do this right. Instead there’s just a resigned frustration that–due to the not-so-unpredictable responses of humans (not just the ag interests’ lobbying, not just stupid school board officials, but also the inevitability that many kids will take the opportunity for a second breakfast)–of course the nature of politics is such that it’s close to impossible for government to even do this one good thing right.

About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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12 Responses to School Lunches Made Me a Libertarian

  1. Pink says:

    We’re smarter than this. We could figure out a healthy system complete with exercise programs if we could stop arguing from our ideological perspectives. And, we don’t have to consult the cardiovascular departments of our universities to do it. But, we do have to agree on purpose rather than politics.

  2. James Hanley says:

    Designing a healthy program is the easy part. I don’t have any doubts about our med/nutrition professionals’ capacity to do that. But a proposed program is not an enacted policy–the trouble comes in moving from the proposal to the enactment, and we’re not smarter than this in that area.

  3. pierrecorneille says:

    You (and not I) read the study, so here’s a question, and I apologize if your answer is already embedded by implication in your discussion of “multiple reasons for the bad outcomes.”

    Is it possible that one of the reasons for the seeming correlation between consumers of subsidized school lunches and breakfasts with obesity is that the people most likely to qualify for subsidized meals are those with less access to healthy foods overall and that they might therefore trend higher for the health risks?

    Even if the answer is yes, I admit that it doesn’t leave the state off the hook.

  4. Matty says:

    I was going to mention Jamie’s School Dinners here but a brief look suggests that this too has failed on implementation so lets try another tack.

    Assuming these programmes are already aimed a kids who the school authorities think will otherwise not get breakfast what are the alternatives? The classic libertarian answer to government inefficiency is that a competitive market would drive ‘service providers’ to give consumers what they want for the price they are willing to pay but.

    1. I’m skeptical schools would allow multiple competing food vendors in their buildings even if there was room.
    2. The choice made by the kids on the ground might not be the choice parents would make if they were there.
    3. If the meals are free does mean we have already established that parents are not ‘willing’* to pay anything at all, in which case the most likely result would be children skipping meals – which to be fair might help reduce obesity.

    What else is there?

    *I put willing in quote marks because I mean it as shorthand for all the reasons parents may not pay including those where they feel forced into that choice.

  5. James Hanley says:

    PC: I think that is exactly the confound. The problem is that the school lunches and breakfasts are not–at least in many districts–not any healthier than what they would get at home. So it would–I think with near certainty–be over-the-top to say the school lunches are “the” cause of the problem. But they appear to be a contributing factor. If poorer kids are at greater risk for obesity and diabetes, at the least the state should be trying to diminish, rather than increase, their risk.

    Matty: One of the big concerns is that we’re expanding the free breakfast/lunch programs beyond just those who are unlikely to get breakfast/lunch otherwise. Concern–reasonable concern–about not stigmatizing the poor has led to a policy of free breakfasts for all students at schools where at least 40% would normally qualify (for the record, that includes my daughter’s school, and she’s made a practice of eating breakfast at school–now I need to find out what she’s eating there). I imagine this is where the large number of double-breakfast kids are coming in. So as a consequence of good intentions we’re spreading the effect beyond just the poor. I guess that’s equality, of a sort.

    So what’s the solution? Damned if I know, and that’s why I find this frustrating and depressing. I don’t see a good market solution. Your point #2 is well taken–we can’t expect kids to be wise consumers–and who could reasonably argue with schools standing on your point 1? The schools in our district have pretty limited cafeteria space–I don’t know how they’d manage to squeeze in competing vendors even if we thought kids would make good choices.

    If we want to continue the program, I guess we’d want to let parents know the risks of obesity from eating two breakfasts a day and inform parents whose kids were eating breakfast so that their folks know and can act on the information if they want to. (Informing them would be fairly easy: In our districts all kids have an ID card that–at least before we got free breakfasts and lunches–was swiped to record who was eating so they could charge us, which is how I found out my one kid was double-dipping on breakfast.) And of course there’s the old standby of “we need to make sure they have more nutritious food in the school cafeterias (and vending machines),” but that doesn’t answer the political question of how we get there from here.

    But if the programs can’t be shown to improve learning outcomes–and I only cited one study from one state, so I don’t want to over-react on that–then maybe they’re not really worthwhile; not achieving their actual goals.

    That doesn’t mean schools might not want to keep an eye out for kids who are truly malnourished and not getting sufficient food. How we do that, though, is something I’ve not thought about.

  6. AMW says:


    Maybe it’s not the school lunch rooms that should be privatized; maybe it’s the schools themselves. That would substantially diminish the power of agribusiness to dictate what gets served in the cafeterias. Free school lunches/breakfasts could then be accomplished via subsidies or block grants to the schools. The onus would be on the schools to provide the mix of options that customers prefer.

    This isn’t a fool-proof solution. For instance, agribusiness might be able to get strings attached to the subsidies/block grants. But it’s probably a step in the right direction; something Dr. Hanley might call marginal libertarianism.

  7. Troublesome Frog says:


    How would that diminish the power of agribusiness? It seems to me that absent strong parental input, private school management would be just as subject to capture as public school administration. Cheap food and sweetheart deals appeal to everybody. And of course, if grocery stores are any indication of how badly people really want healthy food, revealed preference and stated preference don’t really line up.

  8. Matty says:

    It seems to me that absent strong parental input, private school management would be just as subject to capture as public school administration.

    Good point, in fact I’d go further any situation where one person represents another is vulnerable. The interest of your lawyer/union rep/showbiz agent are not your interests and while you can try as hard as possible to get them to align there will always be a gap for someone else to persuade them that isn’t there if you are acting for yourself. Not that this is a good enough reason to do everything for yourself, specialization is one of the strengths of a modern economy but it does raise the point that government is not unique in this respect.

    And of course, if grocery stores are any indication of how badly people really want healthy food, revealed preference and stated preference don’t really line up.

    Here we have a new problem, can we, should we try and hold people to their stated preference for healthy food for themselves and their families if the evidence is they don’t actually want it?

  9. AMW says:


    I take it for granted that, in general, parents care more about their kids’ health than the relevant public officials. Also, a privately owned school system would almost certainly be less centralized in its organization and administration. Hence, it would be more difficult to capture as a whole.

  10. Jeremy Sell says:

    I think if they were serious about this they would offer mostly raw fruit. They provide flavor, sustenance, early-morning carbs, and perhaps some of the vitamins that under-nourished kids probably lack. Plus they’re natural and unprocessed and still grab-and-go. If kids are hungry even cherry tomatoes, bananas, and raspberries can look pretty appealing.

  11. Murali says:

    @Matty, AMW et al

    Actually, you can have multiple private vendors in a small canteen. Even government schools have private vendors. Schools make a profit, students pay less and there is more variety. In the US, school canteens are run on a cafeteria model. In Singapore, they use the food court model. The school charges the vendors rent and the vendors have to compete with eachother in order to earn a profit. Vendors which sell bad food remain unprofitable. While this may seem like a recipe for fatty food, Schools can regulate the food vendors based on caloric content per serving and a teacher is always there to check serving sizes.

  12. D.A. Ridgely says:

    I suspect you could put the average public school student on the Andersonville diet and he’d still gain weight given how little physical activity kids get these days. Recesses are being eliminated, physical education classes have typically become electives (and who other than jocks are going to elect to sweat for an hour?) and sandlot baseball and pickup basketball games have gone the way of rotary dial telephones and televisions without remote controls. (“Of course, little Johnny could get up and dial the phone! Thank gawd he doesn’t have to!”)

    I, too, consider libertarianism a largely Adults Only agenda and I don’t get heartburn over government provided breakfasts or lunches to needy children even if it does result in an increase in child obesity. (My friend Ron Bailey once asked a newly arrived immigrant taxi driver why he moved from Africa to the U,S. and the cabbie answered “I want to live in a country where the poor people are fat!”)

    Regardless, however much the nanny state tries to control our diet from cradle to grave, it’s only one side of the problem, Heavens knows I don’t see mandatory exercise programs as an acceptable solution (especially for adults), but organic, locally grown, genetically unmodified, free range fruits and vegetables won’t make kids healthier unless the little bastards get up run a few laps after lunch every day, too.

    Mind you, I’m a complete hypocrite on this point, having made the avoidance of manual labor of any sort a near vocation. I merely note that tinkering with diet will not by itself solve the problem of juvenile obesity.

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