Cookie Cutters

It’s interesting to me that the same government that has thus far permitted and/or encouraged pro-choice positions on such fundamentally moral issues as abortion and homosexual marriage seeks to deny choice in so many other areas. For example, there are pushes to seriously restrict gun ownership, there are efforts to muzzle the discussion of positions other than evolution in school textbooks and science courses and, yes, there is now a law prohibiting the sale of sugary treats and high calorie drinks in school cafeterias and vending machines.

The new guidelines were announced in June. The U.S. Department of Agriculture program is entitled “Smart Snacks in Schools” and will eliminate candy and sugary drinks from school vending machines and a la carte menus as soon as next year. In fact, to quote a report from the Dallas News, the new guidelines will establish “fat, calorie, sugar and sodium limits on almost everything sold during the school day, even outside of the cafeteria.” The executive director of the food and nutrition services for the Dallas school district said that while the changes will be difficult, they are “in the best interest of…students.” She went on to say that the new rules force schools to provide “healthier options.” The reality, though, is that that is not really true. See, “options” presupposes that the schools will offer healthy snack items as well as the more “traditional” snacks that the new guidelines ban. But when the “healthier options” are the only choices, they are not, in fact, “options.”

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack used similar language in his statement regarding the guidelines, saying, “Parents and schools work hard to give our youngsters the opportunity to grow up healthy and strong, and providing healthy options through school cafeterias, vending machines and snack bars will support their great efforts.” Again, though, Mr. Secretary, when choices are eliminated, “options” are not what remains.

An article in the New York Times reports, “When schools open in the fall of 2014, vending machines will have to be stocked with things like whole wheat crackers, granola bars and dried fruits, instead of M&Ms, Cheese Nips and gummy bears.” I am not opposed to having things like whole wheat crackers and granola bars in school vending machines; I think that is a great idea. I would wholeheartedly support the encouragement–perhaps even the requirement–that such options be made available (though I would prefer–and be much more likely to support–such requirements being made at the local level than coming down from on high). What riles me is both the “government knows best” attitude that is inherent in these new guidelines and the blatant inconsistency in the government’s position in this area as opposed to others.

The Times article also quotes Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. She said, “By teaching and modeling healthy eating habits to children in school, these rules will encourage better eating habits over a lifetime. They mean we aren’t teaching nutrition in the classroom and then undercutting what we’re teaching when kids eat in the cafeteria or buy food from the school vending machines.” I love her use of the word modeling, because that is a word I use often in emphasizing the responsibility that teachers have in working with students; particularly in a Christian school, there should not be a disconnect between what we say and what we do. But eliminating choice is not modeling anything other than the idea that the government needs to make this decision for schools, parents and students because they are not capable of making the right decisions on their own. And again, if we buy into the idea that we should create environments that force people to live according to what we believe is ideal, we will soon live in a country with little or no freedom. And do not forget–anytime there is a decision about what is best, someone has to be making that decision. Who do you really want deciding what is best for you or for your child? Michelle Obama? Tom Vilsack? The food services director at your child’s school? Or you, the parent?

The Times article reports, “Health advocates are taking the same approach to curb the consumption of fatty, sugary and salty foods that they did to reduce smoking: educating children in the hopes that they will grow up healthier and perhaps pass along healthy eating behavior to their parents.” Interesting comparison, because I do not recall anyone banning the sale of cigarettes in order to curtail smoking. Sure, cigarettes were not sold in schools, and there have been laws passed regarding when and how cigarettes can be marketed in order to ensure that they are not being advertised to children, but the sale of cigarettes has never been banned. If health advocates were truly taking the same approach then they would realize that (1) the change they are trying to effect takes time, and (2) it comes ultimately as a result of education and personal choice. Is cigarette use down in the United States? Yes. Is it down because anyone was prohibited from smoking? No.

“Ms. Wootan said she was pleased that the rules would prevent the sale of sugary sports drinks like Gatorade in high schools. The drinks have already been withdrawn from elementary and middle schools, but Ms. Wootan said teenagers mistakenly think such drinks are healthier than sodas,” the Times reports. Okay; assume her point is valid. Correcting this “mistaken thinking” should be accomplished through providing the facts and educating the teenagers who are mistaken, not by eliminating their choice. And the fact that the drinks have already been eliminated at the elementary and middle school levels but are popular among high schoolers serves only to demonstrate that the elimination of the choice does not ultimately inform or change behavior, since today’s high school students were, necessarily, yesterday’s elementary and middle school students. If banning such drinks from the lower schools accomplished the goal, the high schoolers would avoid these drinks even once they were available (which they don’t) and if they did that, the schools would stop selling them since they would sit unsold in the vending machines until they expired. Imagine that–a free market system at work!

All of this comes from the fact that the U.S. has a high rate of childhood obesity, and the powers that be feel that it is the rightful role and responsibility of the government to fix that. Given that the government seems incapable of fixing much more serious problems that are most definitely its bailiwick, I question this logic. But put that doubt aside. Is there an obesity epidemic in the U.S.? Based on the numbers I have seen, there is legitimate cause for concern. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity has more than doubled in children and more than tripled in teenagers in the last thirty years. In 2010, more than one-third of children and teens were classified as overweight or obese.

But what causes obesity? The CDC reports, “Overweight and obesity are the result of ‘caloric imbalance’–too few calories expended for the amount of calories consumed—and are affected by various genetic, behavioral, and environmental factors.” And therein, my friends, lies the problem. Notice that the CDC does not say that obesity results from too many Snickers bars in school vending machines or too many Powerades being consumed by high school students. Rather, the problem comes when students are continually taking calories in and never burning them. So the problem is not what the students are eating nearly so much as it is what they are doing–or, perhaps more accurately, not doing. When students spend their free time sitting around texting, surfing the Internet and playing video games they are not burning many calories. A much better solution to the problem would be to get students to be more active. Should they eat healthy? Sure. But banning cookies from the cafeteria is not going to accomplish that by itself.

The school where I serve is not subject to all of the federal guidelines for school lunches because we are a non-public school and we do not take any government funding. We have vending machines that sell sodas and sports drinks. Our cafeteria serves healthy meals but it also serves dessert. We have water fountains and we have a salad bar. In other words, we actually offer choices. And students in our cafeteria can even–brace yourself–have seconds if they want! But guess what? Though I have never measured it, I think I can safely state that the rate of students who are overweight or obese at our school is far lower than the national norm.

You know what that means, right? Yep… Eliminating choices won’t solve the problem.