The world has really changed since I was a kid in elementary school. Michelle Obama’s Healthy Hungry Free Kids Act would never have passed when I was a youngster. Back then even low-income parents thought it was their responsibility to feed their children, not the American taxpayer’s. It isn’t that the parents of my friends would have objected to their kids eating vegetables. As the children of farmer’s, home-grown vegetables picked just before they were eaten were common fare for my friends. What would have bothered the parents of my friends was the federal government presuming to involve itself in what was clearly a parental responsibility.
Not only would our parents have rejected Michelle Obama’s healthy eating campaign, we—the school children forced to eat what she recommends—would have rejected it. Actually, in this regard, things have not changed that much since I was a kid. Today’s school children hate the Michelle Obama diet and are rejecting it in droves. In fact, Mrs. Obama’s healthy-eating menu is so unpopular with school children that they are refusing to participate in the free-and-reduced-lunch programs that are the foundation of many public school cafeterias these days. Rather than dine free from the Michelle Obama menu, poor school kids of today are doing what poor school kids of my day did: They are bringing their lunch to school in brown paper bags so they can eat what they want to eat. More than 1.2 million school children have dropped out of the federally-financed school lunch program since the Michelle Obama diet became a requirement. In fact, so many children have turned up their noses at the First Lady’s menu that more than 300 public school districts have chosen to forego their federal lunch subsidies, and the number is growing. Frankly, for most of these school districts it was either opt out of the federal lunch program or see their cafeterias go broke. Any private sector business could have told the president and his well-intended wife a simple truth: you cannot force customers to do what you want them to do. Customers have a mind of their own, and in the case of school lunches, students are customers.
As a kid back in the 1950s Friday was always a special school day for me and my friends. Not only was it TGIF day, but the school lunchroom always served chocolate coconut cookies on Fridays, the kind that were refrigerated not baked. The cookies cost 3 cents each. My friends and I came from poor families so we did not buy our lunches from the school cafeteria. Rather, we brought our lunches to school in brown paper bags. There was no such thing as free-and-reduced-lunches paid for by the federal government in those days. Come to think of it, it wouldn’t have mattered if there had been such a program because the parents of my friends would have viewed it as charity and refused to accept it. I can only imagine what these proud parents would have thought of the federal government controlling what their children could eat at school. Michelle Obama would have been considered a presumptuous busybody who needed to learn to mind her own business. Parents in my days did not appreciate being told what was best for them or their children—especially not by the government.
But back to why my friends and I loved Fridays in elementary school. On Fridays we would treat ourselves to three scrumptious chocolate coconut cookies. We got the 9 cents needed by scouring the neighborhood for soda bottles (we called them Coke bottles no matter what brand they were) and redeeming them at the local grocery store. Although we were poor and loose change was scarce in our circles, we worked hard to make sure that, come Friday, we had 9 cents in our pockets. Michelle Obama would cringe if she saw us gleefully chomping down on those wonderful chocolate treats, but come Friday—every Friday—we ate as many of them as we could muster the funds to buy. Of course, unlike today’s school children, we led such active lives that we remained rail-thin in spite of splurging on cookies every Friday. The only hand-held devices we had were baseball bats and footballs, and we rarely saw the inside of our homes until supper time.
I am sure Michelle Obama had good intentions when she leaned on her husband to get the Healthy Hungry Free Kids Act signed into law. After all, veggies are better for sedentary kids than pizza, hamburgers, chicken fingers, fries, and other greasy goodies. Further, unlike when I was in elementary school, a high percentage of today’s school children are overweight. I agree with Michelle Obama’s desire to see young people eating a more healthy diet, but where I part company with the First Lady is in using the federal government to coerce them into it. No matter how well-intended politicians (and their wives) might be, government coercion is the wrong approach. Government recommendations I can buy, but government coercion I can’t.
Schools are supposed to teach, not coerce. The federal government is not supposed to do either. A better approach for the First Lady might have been to follow the example of President John F. Kennedy. JFK was concerned that American youth were becoming too sedentary, and he wanted to do something about it. However, rather than using the power of the federal government to coerce school children to into exercising more—an approach that would not have worked anyway—the initiated a volunteer program in which students earned gold, silver, and bronze badges for completing specific physical challenges. The culminating challenge of his Presidential Fitness Program was a 50 mile hike, which my junior-high school friends and I eagerly accepted and completed. Those of us who earned the gold, silver, and bronze badges that were part of the program proudly displayed them at school which, in turn, encouraged others—through peer pressure—to accept the president’s challenges.
There is a lesson in the federal-lunch program episode that Democrats and federal bureaucrats would do well to learn. People will find a way to subvert federal-government coercion. When people are coerced—no matter what the issue may be—they respond with either outright defiance or, at a minimum, reluctant compliance. In the case of the Healthy Hungry Free Kids Act, school children and school districts are responding with outright defiance. The kids are saying “no” to Michelle Obama’s menu, and school districts are saying “no” to federal subsidy dollars. By the way, did you notice that when poor students could not get what they wanted to eat from the federal government they started bringing their own lunches to school? Contrary to the dire predictions of patriarchal Democrats, apparently poor children will not starve if the federal government miraculously decides to do what it should do concerning school lunches: simply butt out.