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.