Still More School-Lunch Nonsense

      75 Comments on Still More School-Lunch Nonsense

Back in April, I posted part of an email from a Fat Head fan I happen to have met in person, since he lives nearby:

My six-year-old niece Megan started school yesterday, her first day of school. She was already scared and upset and crying. After lunch, she went into orbit, threw up everywhere because she was so upset, and ultimately had to leave school. My brother, who has been looking desperately for work, had to cancel a “sure thing” job interview to go get her because the school was sending her home. Here’s the word from my dad on what happened:

What prompted the whole issue yesterday was Meagan’s teacher taking her lunch, which she had brought from home, away from her.  David [my brother] had packed yogurt and fresh fruit, which Meagan likes.  Her teacher told her mother that the school has to ensure that the children have a nutritious lunch, so they took Meagan’s yogurt and fruit and insisted she eat a corn dog.  What a brilliant plan from a so-called “educator.”

At the time, a couple of other readers wondered if the story was true.  I understand their doubt … after all, this doesn’t sound like something that should ever happen in a supposedly free country.

Well, we can put any lingering doubts to rest, because it happened again this week in a story that was widely reported.  Here’s part of a newspaper account:

A preschooler at West Hoke Elementary School ate three chicken nuggets for lunch Jan. 30 because the school told her the lunch her mother packed was not nutritious.

The girl’s turkey and cheese sandwich, banana, potato chips, and apple juice did not meet U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines, according to the interpretation of the person who was inspecting all lunch boxes in the More at Four classroom that day.

The Division of Child Development and Early Education at the Department of Health and Human Services requires all lunches served in pre-kindergarten programs – including in-home day care centers – to meet USDA guidelines. That means lunches must consist of one serving of meat, one serving of milk, one serving of grain, and two servings of fruit or vegetables, even if the lunches are brought from home. When home-packed lunches do not include all of the required items, child care providers must supplement them with the missing ones.

That’s not a lunch I’d pack for my girls, but of course that’s not the issue here.  The issue is:  why the @#$% is some bozo from the federal government telling a mom in North Carolina what she may and may not pack in her own kid’s lunch?  And why are putting up with it?

The girl’s mother – who said she wishes to remain anonymous to protect her daughter from retaliation – said she received a note from the school stating that students who did not bring a “healthy lunch” would be offered the missing portions, which could result in a fee from the cafeteria, in her case $1.25.

Well, that’s just peachy that the school will “offer” the missing foods.  The only problem is that when government officials make you an “offer,” it’s an offer you can’t refuse.

“Hi, we’re from the government, and we’d like to offer you this approved lunch.”

“No thanks.”

“You don’t understand.  We’re offering it to you.”

“Yeah, I got that.  But I don’t want it.  My kid won’t eat that stuff anyway.”

“Madam, let’s try this again.  We’re offering you this lunch.”

“Uh … no thanks?”

“That will be $1.25.  If you don’t pay, there will be a series of demands and further fines.  If you choose to ignore them, this process will culminate with armed men showing up at your door.  We are the government, after all.  Now, would you like to take us up on our offer?”


One of the great mysteries I’ve yet to solve is the people I’ve met who fully understand how badly our government screwed up the official dietary guidelines, fully understand that the USDA is far more interested in selling particular agricultural products than in promoting health, and yet still believe a big, powerful, intrusive government is necessary to prevent people from engaging in behaviors or making decisions some of us don’t happen to like.  Then, after voting to grant government officials the power to insert themselves into our lives, they are shocked – shocked! – that the USDA would order school kids to pack a lunch that includes foods some of us may not want our kids to eat.

Here’s my question for those people:  What the @#$% did you think was going to happen?!! This kind of nonsense from a government empowered to sticks its nose in everyone’s business is not only unsurprising, it’s utterly predictable.

Yes, yes, I can hear the retorts already … oh, well, sure, but we still the government to regulate our food supply … blah-blah-blah …  government needs to help the stupid people who don’t know any better … blah-blah-blah … if we can just get the USDA to changes its policies … blah-blah-blah  … we just need to get the right people in there  … blah-blah-blah.

I’ve got news for you:  we’ll never get the right people in there.  The right people have no interest in wielding that kind of power over others.

People who’ve never read a single book on libertarianism and yet (stunningly) nonetheless imagine they know what libertarians think like to paint us as starry-eyed dreamers who believe businessmen are all kind-hearted angels … whereas they (not sharing our blissful ignorance) understand that without federal agencies issuing and enforcing a gazillion regulations, big bad business would run roughshod over us all.

That is not what libertarians believe.  The seminal work on free-market economics was The Wealth of Nations, written by Adam Smith in 1776.  Smith actually had a rather low opinion of the merchant class.  In chapter after chapter, he shared his observation that people (including merchants) operate out of their own self-interest, period.  Or if you prefer a more negative connotation, people act out of greed.

What Smith (unlike many contemporaries) also recognized is that government regulators are just self-interested as everyone else.  When governments are granted the power to regulate economic activities, he warned, it’s only a matter of time before the greedy businessmen and the greedy government regulators get together and screw the rest of us for their own benefit.  By stifling freedom and competition, regulators can make their hand-picked producers (and themselves) richer, while making the rest of the population poorer by denying them products that are better or cheaper or both.

Take government’s coercive powers out of the equation and all a merchant can do to you is offer you a product and hope you buy it.  (We’re talking about a genuine offer here, not the kind of “offer” we get from government officials.)  That requires businesses to compete with each other for customers, which in turn leads to better products, better service, lower prices, innovation and higher productivity.  In short, Smith argued that the economic system that produces the most wealth and the highest degree of consumer satisfaction is one based on voluntary exchanges – free markets.  Economic freedom makes the natural greed of the merchant work in our favor.

The attorneys who buy my docketing software can attest to this.  I produced a better, cheaper docketing system for trademark and patent attorneys.  I undercut my competition.  I did this not because I love attorneys, but because I want their money.  The attorneys benefited from my self-interest and “greed.”

Despite what some people will tell you, a market system based on voluntary exchanges does not mean that evil businessmen are allowed to screw people and get away with it.  If a business defrauds you, you didn’t volunteer for that.  If a product turns out to be faulty, you didn’t get what you agreed to buy, which means you didn’t volunteer for that.   If a product kills or maims you, you didn’t volunteer for that.  In any of those situations, the business should be rigorously punished.  That’s the government’s legitimate job – to protect you from violence and fraud.

A free market simply means that if I want to sell you a product or service and you want to buy it, no third party gets to step in and prevent us from making that voluntary exchange.  It also means no one gets to force us to make exchanges we don’t want to make … like, say, being ordered to buy a USDA-approved lunch for our children.

So what does all this economic theory have to do with the USDA and our inability to get the right people running it?  I’m getting to that.  Be patient.

As the great economics writer Thomas Sowell has pointed out many times, government agencies created to regulate a particular industry nearly always end up being run by muckety-mucks from that same industry – who then create policies to benefit the industry as whole or particular segments operating within it.  We just saw that again recently when Obama appointed an executive from Monsanto – one of the worst corporations on the planet — to a high-level post in the USDA.

So why does this always seem to happen?  Why do the foxes always seem to end up guarding the henhouse?  Why can’t we get the right people in those agencies?

It all gets back to people acting in their own self-interest.

Once a government acquires the power to regulate an industry, it also has the ability to rig the game in ways that can be worth millions to particular corporations or segments of that industry.  Being self-interested (and certainly not being stupid), the muckety-mucks from that industry recognize that if they can leverage government’s coercive powers, they can enrich themselves.   Are there competitors we don’t like?  No problem … we just need some health and safety regulations that cripple them.  Is our industry faltering, or just not making as much profit as we’d like?  Simple … we declare what we produce a public necessity and get some generous government subsidies.  In other words, if we can just take away other people’s freedom to engage in voluntary exchanges and make their own decisions, we can do really, really well for ourselves!

To acquire this economic leverage, the muckety-mucks buy political influence through campaign contributions, junkets to exotic places, or offers of lucrative jobs for retiring politicians and regulators.  The politicians and regulators are happy to let themselves be bought – it’s in their self-interest, after all.  In many cases, generous industry donors end up being rewarded by seeing their executives placed in high positions with regulatory agencies.  Those regulators certainly aren’t going to risk pissing off the industry that placed them in their jobs – after all, they’ll probably return to that industry when their government “service” is over.  It’s in their self-interest to play along.

If only some crazed regulator would actually stand up and declare, “I’m issuing this regulation to please the people who bought my influence with their hard-earned dollars,” I might the find practice barely tolerable.  But of course, that’s never what we’re told.  We’re told the gazillion new regulations issued every year are necessary to protect the public.  Riiiiight.

Protecting the public is the nominal excuse for all kinds of ridiculous legislation.  Back when fellow comedian Tim Slagle and I were producing a political comedy show called The Slagle-Naughton Report, one of our bits highlighted a new regulation in Illinois that made it illegal to charge a fee to braid someone’s hair without first attending beauty school and obtaining a license.  The regulation was rammed through at the behest of – you guessed it – beauty-shop owners who didn’t like the competition from cheap hair-braiding salons run by (horrors!) unqualified people — otherwise known as “poor people” and “immigrants.”

Now … can anyone explain to me exactly what threat to public health this regulation was intended to avoid?  (Our bit ended with Slagle announcing, “In a related story, five people were rushed to Northwestern Hospital this week with bad braids.”)  If you don’t like the way your hair was braided, you undo the braids and stop patronizing that shop.  End of story.  But thanks to a bit of influence-buying, the beauty-shop owners got their regulation passed … to protect the public, of course.

Over time, officially-sanctioned coercive power nearly always ends up in the wrong hands.  That’s why we’ll never, ever get the right people running the USDA.   The USDA  is now and always will be largely populated by people from the grain industry.  They will happily subsidize grains with your tax dollars, then happily order all schools, prisons, military bases and every other government institution to serve grains at every meal … an instant, huge, lucrative, reliable market, all created with the stroke of a legislative pen.  The industry is happy, the politicians are happy, and the contributions and post-Washington job offers will keep flowing.

And here’s the real kicker:  Most of these people probably consider themselves good public servants.  As Milton Friedman noted in one of his books, people have an inexhaustible capacity to believe that whatever is good for them personally is also good for the public at large.  Human beings are geniuses at justifying their own behavior.  (I was made even more aware of this after having children.)

You and I can be angry about it, we can bang our heads on our desks about it, we can blog about it, Facebook and Twitter about it, but we will never be able to out-bribe the likes of Monsanto, ConAgra and Archer Daniels Midland.  As long as the federal government has the power to order kids to include particular items in their school lunches, Big Food and Big Agriculture will always end up writing (if indirectly) the rules.

That’s why pizza is still counted as a vegetable.  That’s why if the big dairy producers in your state don’t want you buying raw milk from local farmers, raw milk will be declared a health hazard and banned.  That’s why whole milk is banned in schools, while low-fat chocolate milk sweetened with garbage produced by the Corn Refiners is okay.  And that’s why the parents of school kids are told if they don’t pack a government-approved lunch, they’ll be fined.

We will never change this nonsense by trying to convince the USDA their dietary advice is misguided.  They can’t be convinced.  It’s not in their interest to be convinced.   The only cure is to take away their power — and you will never take away the government’s power by asking it to pretty please do the right thing and only take away the freedoms you personally don’t think other people should have.  You take away government’s power by telling it @#$% off and leave all of us alone unless we’re actually harming someone.

In short, if you support government controlling other people’s choices, you have no right to complain when your choices end up on the verboten list.  Sieg Heil!

Okay, I’m done ranting … for now.

(Note to Rick Perry:  the next time a debate moderator asks you which three federal agencies you’d dissolve, the third item on your list should be the USDA.  Given that absolutely everybody needs to eat, I think it’s extremely unlikely we’d stop producing enough food if the industry were left to free-market forces.)


75 thoughts on “Still More School-Lunch Nonsense

  1. David F

    I’m sitting way over here in Australia reading these stories of children’s lunches being taken away at school…i find this is a completely bizarre situation! Does this REALLY happen??

    I guess I should be glad that we don’t have a system here at our government schools where they provide lunches. Our kid’s school does not even have a canteen so all our kid’s food comes from home.

    When I was a kid, our school didn’t serve lunch. You either walked home or brought a lunchbox.

  2. Craig

    “I’ve got news for you: we’ll never get the right people in there. The right people have no interest in wielding that kind of power over others.”

    You nailed it right there. Politics attracts the same kind of bureaucracy-minded people who run for SGA office in college. When I listen to the Dave Ramsey show people often call to say he should run for president and he always laughs and says he has zero interest. As a small business owner with no desire to enter politics I totally understand where he is coming from.

    He’d be a great president because he’d want to leave people alone. That’s why he would never run. He’d also never get elected, since he constantly hammers away on the need to get out of debt. That doesn’t sit well with people who think government’s job is to give them more goodies, no matter how high the deficit.

  3. palo

    One of the arguments against us (libertarians) by the statists is “what about the poor and the needy. Without government who’ll take care of them?”

    When I mention that at least 70% of government social services agencies are made up of salaries and benefits and that government efficiency is below acceptable (I know because I worked within the monster for 30 years) and that it’s less costly to send the needy a check, they always respond “no no no, you cannot do that because they are too stupid to take care of themselves.” That’s the crux of the issue, government control.

    Yee-up. I had to stifle myself from cheering when Professor Eric Oliver said in our Fat Head interview that one of the things that struck him about Super Size Me was the apparent message that poor people are incapable of making their own decisions, so McDonald’s must take responsibility for them.

  4. Craig

    “In every generation there are those who want to rule well — but they mean to rule. They promise to be good masters — but they mean to be masters.”

    Daniel Webster

  5. labrat

    Couldn’t agree more with your “rant”.

    With regard to lunch. What 4 year old eats that much food? They are worried about obesity and they want to add food to an already abundant lunch? My daughter would cry – falling down tears if I packed her more than 1/2 a sandwich. In first grade she ate 1/2 plain PB sandwich every day. In second grade she ate a small yogurt EVERY day (with rare exceptions). She did get milk with her lunch but she never ever eats school food – she abhors it. If she went to this school, I’d be paying $2.25 a day for her to throw out her food every day. Yeah – that’s brilliant. I worked the cafeteris at my kids elementary school – more food went in the slop bin than in their belly’s. Guess which food got thrown out?

    They are in HS now. What pisses me off is they get a whopping 20 minutes for lunch! That’s barely enough time to get your food if you get it there. My kids don’t eat much at school. They come home and eat and then we eat dinner late.

    The new and improved (ahem) USDA lunches are already prompting a lot of kids to throw much of the food away.

  6. Lori

    Re: people who’d be good in government not wanting to be in government, it’s the same in management. Aside from training situations, the best managers at the 20-some places where I’ve worked had no inclination to run around giving orders.

    I’ve worked for some very good managers, including recently at BMI. They were good managers because they hired smart, self-directed people, gave them a project and a deadline, then left them alone.

  7. Barry

    Amen, Tom.

    I am scared to death by how many people in this country have no clue what is going on right in front of their faces. Telling a company what they have to pay for is okay because you think everyone should get that thing for free? Really?

    Believe me, government regulations, laws and new taxes are killing this country. At some point we will be beyond the tipping point. I fear we’re almost there. You are so correct that laws are not written to protect “the people.” They are mostly written to kill the competition or the little guy. Lucky for you you’re in an industry like software that seems pretty free of regulation. I have not been so lucky. Also be glad you left California. This place is Greece II.

    There were many reasons I decided to escape California. The financial mess was definitely one of them. Every time I turned around, California wanted to squeeze more money out of me, yet was running huge deficits despite all the taxes. Now I live in a state with the third-lowest overall tax burden in the country, but which had a budget surplus last year — and the governor already announced it’s going into a reserve fund instead of being used to buy more government for everybody.

  8. Rebecca

    Everything you say is true and it only makes me more angry. I have a child and since going Paleo I realized how much I and everyone else has been lied too. Lied too about everything it feels. Everything these big corporations do is for themselves .. keep us sick so they make money. I really fear for my son when he goes to school this year. If anyone takes his lunch away I can’t explain how angry I will be.

    I am a registered Republican but over the past few years it seems my views are more in line with Libertarianism. The problem is who can you vote for with those ideals. Especially being in a state like Rhode Island FORGET IT! People complain about the rise in taxes and losing civil liberties yet they vote in the same moron liberals year after year … why? I am afraid Obama may be elected for another four years because people seem to want a nanny state. One would think Greece would be a prime example of what not to do yet I see Obama and other liberals wanting us to go there. How is Greece uptopia?? Maybe they do not care about Greece’s fiscal mess and just want power. As long as the government can control us and they live wealthily what does anyone else matter.

    Sorry rambling .. any of that make sense? Just needed to vent somewhere.

    The Libertarian party hasn’t shown itself to be capable of winning national elections. The value of Ron Paul (see the Older Brother’s comment) is that he’s helping to convert more Republicans to libertarian ideas. There are still a lot of blue-blood, country-club types in the party, the old Rockefeller wing that simply wants a somewhat different big government with somewhat lower taxes. They need to go.

  9. Firebird

    Tom writes, “I had to stifle myself from cheering when Professor Eric Oliver said in our Fat Head interview that one of the things that struck him about Super Size Me was the apparent message that poor people are incapable of making their own decisions, so McDonald’s must take responsibility for them.”

    I took a small business workshop at my local county college, where I met a woman who wanted to start a business to teach inner city people in Philadelphia about proper nutrition and exercise, how to smartly shop in the supermarkets and produce stands in the neighborhood. I recommended FAT HEAD to her.

    It was a 6 week workshop and she only signed up for two of the work shops. I do not know if she watched or not. I hope she did.

  10. The Older Brother

    Sorry, kids. The reason Ron Paul can’t win isn’t because of the big bad media or his foreign policy or the sinister Republican Establishment or anything other than this simple fact:

    Americans as a group are absolutely opposed to individual liberty.

    Probably 75% of people who don’t read this blog, even if they found this particular incident questionable, would still say “yeah, but the government still needs to ‘help’ make sure kids eat right.” T

    That doesn’t mean supporting Paul is pointless. We’ve been successfully convinced that political races are like horse races – i.e., you’re supposed to try to pick a winner or you’re wasting your wager. The value of Paul’s candidacy is that he’s illuminating libertarian principles to wider audience, especially younger folks. Those principles could come handy some day. But not in the sense that a country where half the people receive government payments of some sort and pay no income tax are suddenly going to vote for liberty – which would throw themselves off the dole. More like handy in the way the Irish preserved many of the great documents during the Dark Ages so they were available once they could used again.

    So supporting Paul is most certainly not pointless. It’s just hopeless.


  11. Edmond Jacobs

    All I’m gonna say is… that students lunch was a lot healthier than some of the garbage I ate from the cafeteria at school when I was a kid… lol And they should be supportive that that kid’s parents take the time to make their child a lunch. Shows a better personal relationship and family bond. And what if they made that lunch together? It kinda hits home and little things like that affect kids emotionally. You would think being saturated with a conservative government big on family values they would care about these things.

    I’m reasonably sure we don’t have a conservative government at the moment. Nor have some so-called conservatives stood up against this kind of nonsense when given the chance.

  12. MP

    Tom – While I support all your efforts and have had life-changing results following the particular nutritional protocol you advocate, it is possible you jumped the gun with this particular story.

    Well, I’ve heard two different versions. Since I wasn’t there, I can’t say which is true. But … read the email a local Fat Head fan sent me about a similar incident, read comments in which people have noted other similar events, then keep in mind that my wife and I received a letter from own daughter’s school informing us that state inspectors would be visiting the school and we were REQUIRED to pack a lunch meeting USDA guidelines.

  13. dtc

    I don’t mean to be too much of a devil’s advocate, but isn’t the argument here really about where the line is drawn.

    As you say, you still need government for some things. You disagree with requiring teachers to review lunches. But would you disagree, for example, with teachers being required to provide nutritional advice to parents identified as providing poor lunches to their children (the chips and coke kind)? You frequently point out the potential dangers of food – why should you allow a 4yr old or any child to eat food that might be dangerous? Or to develop a food habit that results in weight gain and other problems? (I know you disagree with the advice that will be given – govt approved – but the content of the advice is a different issue to whether such advice should be given)

    No, that advice shouldn’t be given. Schools aren’t diet centers. Schools should teach children academic subjects and stay out out of the nutrition-advice business.

  14. Chris G

    Vote Gary Johnson for prez – He’s the shoe-in for the Libertarian Party. Not because he’s going to win, unfortunately, but because he’s the only sane, uncorrupted one in the bunch. Check out his record & then support him. If enough people jump aboard, he’ll get the biggest Libertarian Party share ever. That’s what it will take to get our voices heard. Another vote for MittGingTorum is the real waste.

    I’m still ticked off that he wasn’t invited to the debates. He wanted to run as a Republican.

  15. Paul B.

    Excellent column and right on the money. It is too bad more people do not find this appalling, but stuff like this (like the latest TSA outrage) will continue until enough voters demand that it stop.

    I read recently that more and more schools are serving THREE meals per day, mainly in poor districts. Apparently these poor kids would have no food to eat except for what was given to them at school. I cannot imagine being raised by such incompetent parents. Im not a Rush Limbaugh fan but I like his reaction to this–“why not just keep them in school rather than sending them home?”

    Careful, Rush … I’ve learned that no matter how much you exaggerate to make fun of these statist bozos, pretty soon they catch up.

  16. Todd

    Good article Tom. I am not sure it is all self interest on the other side. I think it is mostly that but it is also ignorance. I was politically left (big government) until I took my first econ class in college 30 years ago. My jaw dropped when the prof proved how a minimum wage hurts the poor using supply and demand curves. It really changed my perspective on how the world works.

    As an aside, I recommended that Dana White hire you to defend the UFC and the way it pays its fighters. Some argue that fighters should get a ‘fair piece of the pie’ but they don’t know what the UFC makes because it is private. That’s like me going to McDonalds and ordering a burger (w/o the bun of course) and having the cashier ask how much I make before telling me the price. LOL. I’m sure you could make a very funny film on this topic (free markets) like you did with fat-head.

    I think the local officials are acting on orders that are written at the top by self-interested officials at the USDA.

  17. Devin

    As a 2nd grade teacher, I have to admit I’ve told my kids what not to bring for lunch. We try to discourage Lunchables, but we let them eat them if that’s what they bring. I did have one boy a few week ago show up with a cup of uncooked Ramen noodles and nothing else. To tell you the truth, I’m still not sure if his mother packed them for him or if he just decided he wanted to bring lunch that day and grabbed them out of the cabinet without telling her. We cooked them up for him and let him eat them, but I did tell him not to bring them again. Our school also lets kids get seconds on certain “healthy” items like bread, rice krispies treats and graham crackers but I’m trying my best to encourage my kids to choose things like cheese sticks, vegetables and fruits if they want seconds. So I have to admit I’m sort of pushing my food beliefs on my kids, but I have so many fat kids and the incidence of diabetes on the rez is sky high and I just don’t want them to become statistics. And I will let them eat whatever they bring from home or whatever the school’s serving, but I do try to let them know if it’s not good for them.

  18. The Older Brother


    Have you seen “My Big Fat Diet” about the Namgis First Nation people in B.C.? It was kind of a “Fat Head” meets “aboriginal society.” You can watch it on YouTube.

    It might be a useful conversation starter for your school.


  19. Jason Brady

    My question is what about the lunch didn’t follow the USDA guidelines?

    “turkey and cheese sandwich, banana, potato chips, and apple juice”

    “…meet USDA guidelines. That means lunches must consist of one serving of meat, one serving of milk, one serving of grain, and two servings of fruit or vegetables…”

    * meat – turkey
    * milk – cheese (maybe not enough?)
    * grain – “sandwich” so bread
    * fruit/vegitables – banana, apple juice, potato chips

    I would think they would give her some milk (if the cheese didn’t fit), and take the potato chips. Not give her chicken nuggets.

    Apparently they said later the inspector made a mistake because the line did fit the guidelines. That still ignores the crucial question: why are they enforcing dietary guidelines at all?

  20. Paul L in MA

    So… Big Bro thinks little girl would be worse off eating a plain cold cut, than eating chicken meat breaded and fried in who knows what rancid vegetable PUFAs?

    Apparently so.

  21. Gorrdio

    Ever see the show “jamie oliver revolution”? This show highlights the BS of school lunch mandates.

    Even if the ‘traditional’ (non-paleo) pyramid were scientifically sound, a lot of crap meets the guidelines WAY easier than ‘traditional’ healthy foods

  22. Evin

    Here’s what I don’t get: how are chicken nuggets healthier than a turkey sandwich and a banana?


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