The First Parent Of The United States

Daren Bakst Research Fellow, The Heritage Foundation
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Michelle Obama thinks she knows what your children should eat. She’s adamant about promoting her nutrition policies for kids, even the new and disastrous school meal standards implementing the “Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.”

In a recent MSN interview, Michelle Obama revealed her own struggles with getting her kids to eat properly before she came to the White House. This apparently led to a major realization: “I thought to myself, if a Princeton- and Harvard-educated professional woman doesn’t know how to adequately feed her kids, then what are other parents going through who don’t have access to the information I have?”

This motivated her to take on childhood obesity. She set her sights on schools because “the most important place to start tackling this issue is in our schools.”

But attending Ivy-League schools doesn’t magically make someone better parent material than an individual who attended a public university, or, dare it be said, someone who didn’t attend college. It also doesn’t mean that she should be a co-parent to your children. Make no mistake; the underlying assumption is that federal technocrats and educated individuals such as her need to act on your behalf to meet the best interests of your children.

This arrogance is on display in the current controversy over the new and restrictive federal school meal standards. Since the 2010-11 school year, participation in the school lunch program has fallen dramatically after more than a decade of growth. Most of the decline occurred in the 2012-2013 school year, when participation fell by over a million students. This just so happens to be the first year that the standards were in effect.

Schools are incurring massive costs to comply with the standards. Some schools have reportedly transferred money out of their teaching budgets to cover the food costs. There’s massive plate waste, food storage and equipment costs, and little flexibility for local schools to meet the needs of their students.

Michelle Obama has scolded anyone who dares to address concerns about these standards, including the School Nutrition Association (SNA), which represents more than 55,000 school nutrition professionals. That may be the only way to counter the legitimate concerns that the school system’s foot soldiers are seeing firsthand.

SNA, though, isn’t the only organization highlighting the problems. The independent Government Accountability Office did a survey of school nutrition officers. These officials expressed similar concerns, including problems with plate waste and food costs.

According to the National School Board Association, “School boards cannot ignore the higher costs and operational issues created by the rigid mandates of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.”

As the self-appointed First Parent of the United States, Michelle Obama is effectively making that infamous parental argument, “Because I said so.” She just ignores all the problems that have been identified. The big argument that she makes along with her allies is 90 percent of schools are meeting the standards.

This is an irrelevant point. It doesn’t address the problems that have been identified, such as plate waste, food costs, participation, or whether long-term compliance is feasible. In fact, significant compliance should have been expected; otherwise, schools wouldn’t be so concerned about the massive burden they currently face by having to comply with the standards.

These standards should be changed to create more power and flexibility for parents and local school officials. In the meantime, the “radical” idea in the House agriculture appropriations bill of giving one-year compliance waivers to financially struggling schools should be adopted. A waiver doesn’t weaken the standards in any way; it doesn’t touch them.

This entire issue, though, is really about the proper role of the federal government. While Michelle Obama is pushing for rigid federal control of school meals, the alternative is respecting parents who know their children’s needs better than anyone else, even better than Michelle Obama. The alternative also includes respecting local school officials, who know their communities better than the federal government.

If parents don’t like meal standards, they can and will complain directly and in person to local officials. Parents don’t have the same recourse with faceless and nameless bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.

It’s a bit strange that Michelle Obama, who admits she had problems feeding her own children, is now taking the lead to aggressively push what other people’s kids should eat. Even though she acknowledges she hasn’t been infallible when it comes to child nutrition, she can’t admit that these new and controversial national standards might be problematic. A good parent knows when to let go. 

Daren Bakst is a Research Fellow in Agricultural Policy in the Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).