First Lady Food Frenzy

Posted on May 27, 2014 by


The First Lady Michelle Obama is at it again.  Reacting to her critics she has reiterated the necessity of food regulations for school lunch programs.  Many schools and districts have complained about the rules, arguing that they are restrictive.  Economists and policy analysts have also criticized the rules, designed to limit fat, calorie, sugar and sodium intake, on various grounds:  they involve government in impossible central planning, they use a “one size fits all” approach, and they substitute government control of what is deemed nutritious for the continuing refinement of food science and market responses to it as consumers attain more information.  These of course overlap.  I want to say more about the criticisms, but first, what had Mrs. Obama done?  She has insisted that she is right and that her standards must be the only correct ones.  She has criticized her critics, saying, “This is unacceptable,”  She uses crisis rhetoric to argue that “something must be done” and of course, that government must do it.  Let’s look more closely at her assertions.

Can the Federal government determine what foods are best for school children and then mandate those determinations for all schools?  The first thing to say is that her (actually the Agriculture Department) rules amount, as I have said, to central planning. Everyone plans, but long ago, Friedrich Hayek pointed out the problems of attempting to plan as if one were omniscient.  One has to know all circumstances, contingencies, possible outcomes, productive capacities, in short, one has to know pretty much everything it is possible to know about the subject being planned.  But it is impossible to obtain such a vast amount of knowledge.  Both the quantity required and the accuracy of it mitigate against ever being able to know what ought to be done based on what is.  Yet Mrs. Obama believes (?) she and the Department of Agriculture can have such knowledge?  

Let’s assume it is possible to obtain the required knowledge and that it is accurate.  A major problem still exists.  Will the state of the current knowledge remain constant or will it change over time?  We have already seen this happen, as nutritionists and scientists are now questioning or outright challenging the prevailing wisdom regarding fats and proteins.  Yet the government agencies dealing with nutrition have continued to insist that nothing has changed.  The prevailing paradigm is not holding up but the government agencies refuse to see that and adjust.

Another problem is the “one size fits all” approach of central planning.  The rules, though they have been somewhat modified, mandated the same food requirements and limits for everyone.  But is everyone the same. Does an athlete need the same amount and proportion of food as a non-athlete?  Do a distance runner and a weight-lifter eat the same thing all the time?  Complaints almost immediately arose for this very reason.  But the Federal government was inexcusably slow in responding to these differences.  If students and their families had been left free to make their own choices based on their unique circumstances, the outcome would have been far better.

A bill has been introduced in Congress to allow greater freedom in food choice, and this has caused some movement by the Department of Agriculture.  But not all that much.  Why not once and for all get government out of the food nanny business and allow those affected to make their own choices?  But wait, don’t we have an obesity crisis?  We do have a problem, yes.  But do all problems merit Federal intervention?  Is the cure worse than the disease?  And is one more area of freedom being removed?  This “food fight” may seem to be petty–as most food fights are–but it is not only important in its own right but representative of the greater issues raised above.  

I say, let the fight begin and put the food back on our own tables, or at least those of local schools and not the Federal government.