Against Sarah Brodsky On School Lunch: Our Moral Obligations and a Libertarian Alternative

Our national school lunch program has a very dear place in my heart. I advocated increasing funding to the program as an affirmative case on a high school debate topic many, many moons ago. I was a novice debater and a poor advocate at the time and I am sure the only reason I won the few rounds that I did was that the arguments for these policies carry their own weight.

The argument is that hunger is perhaps the most meaningful barrier to learning in the classroom. This is because neither the mind nor the body can function at its best when it does not have enough nutrients. This prevents an immediate barrier to classroom instruction that the classroom cannot distance them from. You can provide the social, emotional, and physical distance from the problems in a child’s life in the space of a classroom, but you cannot separate a child from his or her hunger.

It seems worthwhile to me that schools should provide an adequate and nutritious breakfast or lunch option for children, particularly for children in poverty, but poverty alone is not the sole barrier to adequate nutrition. Even large numbers of children in well-off families routinely skip an adequate breakfast and having that option available at school is truly meaningful (Brown et al 2008) in whether or not your students are attentive and able to learn. There are real costs to medications and managing disruptive behavior and the entire system that enforces laws against absenteeism; I think the Brown 2008 study estimates one set of costs at $10 billion annually. Think of it this way: hunger increases misbehavior and hence the amount of non-productive, ‘guard’ labor in the form of security officers, social workers, etc that are necessary to deal with the consequences of misbehavior. Hence what appeared to be a simple problem of hungry children also represents an economy-wide misallocation of resources with many large and hidden costs.

There is a moral argument for providing sufficient diet options for schoolchildren as well. Children do not have a choice about whether or not they are educated; it is the law that they be educated (though parents have wide latitude in determining the direction of that education). In a sense mandating participation in education is a just form of involuntary servitude because children cannot opt out (and most children do want to be in school). It is our moral obligation to provide adequately for them given our constraint on their liberty. I would argue that if we cannot guarantee children the basic commitment to provide for their well being then mandating their participation in education is unjust. Consider the following: if we provide bad, inedible food to prisons, prisoners riot and lawmakers start writing bills. But there are no repercussions for us when we provide ‘spent hens‘ and bacteria-infested meat that doesn’t meet McDonald’s quality standards to children. If children misbehave we medicate them, providing employment for doctors who over-diagnose ADHD and other conditions and over-prescribe drugs like Ritalin that make billions of dollars for pharmaceutical companies that make these kinds of mind-altering drugs.

These are reasons why I find  shoddy and uninformed stances opposing investments in our children’s nutrition really disturbing. Here is Show-Me Institute intern Sarah Brodsky slamming what appears to be a notably successful effort in New Orleans (!) to improve access to nutrition:

I read further and saw that my guess was wrong. The “What We’ve Done” section of the website is all about school food. Of the 12 recommendations for change, two call for more local food in school lunches. One suggests that schools establish gardens on their premises because “Students need to grow fresh food and taste what they grow.”

Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools is lobbying for something peripheral to a great education. It doesn’t matter where school food was grown, as long as students get a nutritionally complete meal. And gardening, while it’s possibly educational and rewarding, is not a basic human need. If you think of school priorities, like creating a safe environment and teaching students to read, maintaining a garden would be pretty far down the list.

I hope Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools will reevaluate its goals and stay true to its original mission. A couple of questions to consider: Are the most pressing inequities already addressed, so that we can now devote our attention to gardens? Or do neighborhoods and parental income levels continue to keep a great education out of reach for many students, for reasons that have nothing to do with food?

The problems here are obvious! While it’s true that as adequate nutrition doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with where food came from, the status quo is so far from satisfactory that this FYI is meaningless. What is meaningful is that students now don’t have access to high-quality food. If it comes from local producers who don’t maximize yields, diluting nutrient content (as is the case with large agribusiness), the food is vastly better. If children aren’t eating meat that tests positive for salmonella four times more often than the meat McDonald’s accepts, or processed wheat products that have been stripped of their nutrient content and instead get access to food produced in less destructive ways, we are all better off!

Here’s the fundamental argument that Sarah’s blind opposition to local food ignores. Industrial food production and distribution happens on a national scale. Unfortunately, it is well documented that regulators don’t do their jobs well in regulating quality and safety. The compelling argument for local food is that being able to immediately hold specific people accountable and not depending on the bureaucracy of a federal regulatory body allows us to prevent children from eating contaminated meat and tortillas and things that would get a large fast food chain in a class-action lawsuit faster than you can say “where’s an attorney?”. Part of the basic economics of information holds that when information is specialized and decentralized it is harder to gather and interpret, meaning that consumers have less information, not more, about their choices.

There are three policy recommendations that I’d like to close with. The first is that we have more school gardens! Even if they’re not by themselves sufficient to feed an entire school the effort is still worthwhile. You get to start changing the outlook children have towards food and their environment and promote healthy living. And it’s a huge educational opportunity! A garden is a natural lab for chemistry and biology classes. It is a starting place for discussions about politics, fodder for historical and cultural education, and if you have a culinary arts program headed by someone like Brook Harlan at Rockbridge High (here is a good profile)here in Columbia, you’re really on to something.

The second is of course that this focus on local food is good. There are inefficient ways and bad thinking that can characterize the advocacy for local food and it is important to be unbiased and scientific; that being said, I think I have made a compelling argument that local food is good because you get what you pay for.

The third policy recommendation is that we encourage more school districts to end the monopoly on providing food services that they retain or contract out to large corporations. Allow multiple private vendors to provide food of certain quality and let competition drive at least part of the increase in quality. In economic language we can note more formally that expanding the market increases the amount of both consumer and producer surplus. It also protects our obligation to ensure basic services to our children. This is really the libertarian way out of the problem and it’s a good example of where interactions between public and private entities provide better services than the status quo, which is dominated by public schools granting monopolies to private lunch contractors.

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One thought on “Against Sarah Brodsky On School Lunch: Our Moral Obligations and a Libertarian Alternative

  1. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by eapenthampy: Against @SarahBrodsky of the @ShowMeInstitute on School Lunch: Our Moral Obligations and the Libertarian Alternative http://bit.ly/dCSdtl

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