Banning Junk Food from Schools

The war against junk food is as quixotic as ever:

The days when children consume two orders of French fries in the school cafeteria and call it lunch may be numbered. A bipartisan group in Congress plans to introduce legislation today that would prohibit the sale in school not only of French fries but also of other fatty or sugary foods, including soft drinks.

That’s from the New York Times. Anyone who believes that Congress will actually manage to ban junk food from schools—including junk food from vending machines—should save their optimism for Powerball or some other reasonable venture. Back in May of 2004, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) introduced a measure that would merely develop nutritional guidelines for school vending machines. Guidelines. That’s all. But no. Four Democrats sided with eight Republicans to defeat the measure.

Is the junk food lobby really that powerful? Consider the evidence: In June of 2005, Connecticut Governor Jodi Rell vetoed a bill that would’ve rid Connecticut schools of junk food, despite widespread parental approval. Guess who opposed the measure? Two months earlier, Kentucky had just barely managed to squeak out a bill that banned soda from elementary schools—anything more stringent would never have passed. Arizona had to make the same compromise in April. Members of Congress who oppose federal regulations on junk food always say that these issues should be matters of “local control.” But local legislatures are powerless in the face of our Frito-Lay overlords, evidently.

At any rate, the Times piece helpfully swats down some arguments against nutritional standards—namely, that they’ll cost schools revenue or that kids won’t eat healthy food. But it’s less clear that nutritional regulations in schools will get anywhere close to the root of the junk-food problem—namely, that large agribusinesses have managed to hijack the entire system of food production in the United States and secure themselves $180 billion worth of government subsidies enabling them create utter crap on the cheap. Against that sort of tide, a few dams in the cafeteria won’t do very much.