After half-a-decade of trying to dismember Michelle Obama's signature effort to make school lunches healthier, Republicans compromised with Democrats to preserve much of what the first lady wants while loosening rules in ways that benefit major food companies.Bjerga and Wasson quote me with a favorable opinion on the Senate Agriculture Committee proposal:
"School nutrition policy can't thrive with just part of the country behind it," said Parke Wilde, a nutrition-policy professor at Tufts University in Boston. "Even if some of the compromises were painful, it seems hugely beneficial for the kids involved to have bipartisan legislation moving forward. This still is better off than where we started."To give some background for this viewpoint, here is a commentary that a Friedman School graduate student, Mary Kennedy, and I contributed to Choices Magazine a few years ago. Characterizing the School Food Authorities that actually serve the meals as businesses, we considered the conditions that would allow these not-for-profit businesses to provide healthier school meals without going broke.
If we think of the school food service as a business, we need to understand the costs and revenues for different food and beverage offerings, and to understand how nutrition quality improvements affect both costs and revenues. Surprisingly, there is promising evidence to suggest that more healthful choices can be provided while costs are kept in check. According to the results of the California-based Linking Education, Activity and Food (LEAF) program, increased costs associated with greater fruit and vegetable purchases, packing, and storage were offset, in large part, by increased meal sales and other measures that increased the efficiency of the food service operation (Woodward-Lopez et al., 2005).We argue, as do many others, that serving healthy meals through the federal meals program may require policies to address less healthy food from other sources in the school environment.
These limitations on competitors may seem like a strange policy prescription. Who ever heard of an agricultural economist tacitly endorsing limitations on consumer choices? Certainly, the nutritional and economic advantages of such policies must be weighed against the real welfare value of allowing children to express their own food preferences at school, as they do outside of school. The Just and Wansink article in this theme warns against unintentionally increasing the appeal of unhealthy products by banning them outright. Nevertheless, placing some reasonable limits on competitive food is not really economic heresy. For centuries, economists have admired markets as a coordinating tool for economic decisions in communities composed of households, but economists have always acknowledged beneficent non-market decision-making within households. Schools are not marketplaces but educational institutions responsible for the welfare of their charges. If schools are expected to respond to the current epidemic of childhood obesity by improving the school food environment, and taxpayers are reluctant simply to provide more resources, then there is some merit in considering measures to enhance the relative competitive position of healthy meals served through the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program.A key part of the politics behind the Senate compromise this week was support from the School Nutrition Association (SNA), which serves in part as a trade association for the School Food Authorities. The SNA had concerns about previous child nutrition reauthorization proposals, but -- when its concerns are addressed -- may yet be a source of political support for policies that preserve improvements in nutrition standards. In the long run, it would undermine the SNA's reputation and political influence if it were considered a more fundamental opponent of policies to improve the nutrition quality of school meals for America's children.
In the Bjerga and Wasson article yesterday, I commented on the tough challenge faced by the local organizations that the SNA represents:
"Simultaneously offering healthy meals that are highly desired by kids, at a low price, while meeting school-nutrition standards is challenging. This is a truce rather than a final peace," he said. "But a truce is still pretty good news."