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No Such Thing as a Free School Lunch

I have a distinct childhood memory of riding through Greer with my brother in his red VW Beetle as he explained the economic concept of “no free lunch.” He was in college and I a mere 16 years younger.

As he droned past the old Hardees on North Main Street, all I could think about was a chocolate milk shake. In those days, Hardees used real ice cream and their shakes came with slightly melted bubbly foam that floated on top. I cared less about its cost than about drinking it. As my brother continued his economic dissertation, the Hardees sign faded in the distance and I learned that there were no free milk shakes either.

Speaking of free lunches, we have a school nutrition bill coming up before my sub-committee this Wednesday. It brings our state code in compliance with the federal code. Several committee members have discussed possible amendments to the bill in response to the varied complaints that we hear about school lunches.

After listening to constituents reflect on their own experiences, I realized that school lunches are reliable memory makers. Most people have a far more vivid recollection of what they ate in school than what they studied in class. I still develop a craving for a peanut butter and honey sandwich every time I’m served a bowl of tomato soup – a favorite from the elementary school that I attended.

Being rural students, we were served pinto beans, turnip greens and cornbread on a fairly regular basis. We sometimes had cobbler. I thought that was fine eating. We were also served fish every Friday – fried, of course – but still a significant ecumenical gesture of brotherly love towards phantom Catholics amidst non-conformists Baptist and Pentecostal students. I was eventually sent to a private religious school miles away where I was disappointed to discover microwaved pizza rectangles. I watched in horror as these city kids poked eyeholes in the pizza and wore them over their faces like pepperoni laden tribal masks. Imagine what they would have done with turnip greens.

To shake off my 1970’s school lunch nostalgia, I spent several hours reading through the recent federal regulations regarding nutritional lunches served in schools and the problems we have with childhood obesity. I didn’t scratch the surface of the number of regulations that have been developed since Congress passed the Healthy Hunger-free Kids Act of 2010.

The regulations are extensive and cover everything from determining if “smoothies” are considered nutritious to developing equity formulas to ensure that those students who actually pay for school lunches do so with a price adjusted for inflation each year.

The regulations also delve heavily into school “snacks”, an intrusion that continues to bring the most criticism from parents. Since their Smart Snack program caused such confusion, the USDA published a 17 page question and answer guide that clarifies such questions as “if coffee and tea are sold, may students have cream and sweetener?” or “Is a cheese sandwich considered an entree item?” or “Are ice cream products with milk fat listed as their first ingredient allowable as a Smart Snack?” The questions continue with a section on fundraisers, a subject where angels fear to tread.

School lunch programs are nothing new. They have been around since Harry Truman signed the National School Lunch Act in 1946. The programs have gradually expanded so that currently almost 60% of South Carolina’s k-12 students qualify for free or reduced school lunches.

The Healthy Hunger-free Kids Act of 2010 goes beyond expanding coverage and attempts to reduce childhood obesity by defining what can be served to students in local school districts. Whether these intrusive methods will actually work in the long-term remain to be seen but initial polling among parents shows heavy support for reducing childhood obesity, at least until some confused teacher confiscates a student’s homemade oatmeal cookies made by his mother as happened recently in a Greenville elementary school. A confiscated homemade oatmeal cookie reveals more about the intent and reach of the federal government than any other item I can think of.

An almost equal amount of those polled thought that students should get more physical exercise at school, too. How long will that support last once the federal government defines how your child should exercise.

When I think back to my rural elementary school lunches, I don’t remember many obese students or students who refused to eat the school lunch prepared for them. Maybe we were all still too poor not to appreciate a good serving of cornbread and pinto beans. Or maybe we just had parents and brothers who could drive by the local Hardees without stopping while teaching us a common sense lesson in economics, nutrition and avoiding obesity.