National Review: Food Police And Lunchbox Privacy

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First Lady Michelle Obama i i

First Lady Michelle Obama joins children during their lunch at New Hampshire Elementary School in Silver Spring, Maryland. She has promoted a huge increase in funding for the federally subsidized school-lunch program. Yuri Gripas/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Yuri Gripas/AFP/Getty Images
First Lady Michelle Obama

First Lady Michelle Obama joins children during their lunch at New Hampshire Elementary School in Silver Spring, Maryland. She has promoted a huge increase in funding for the federally subsidized school-lunch program.

Yuri Gripas/AFP/Getty Images

Julie Gunlock is a senior fellow at the Independent Women's Forum.

Among adherents of the nanny state, it's no longer enough to require schools to provide healthy meals for kids. Now schools are making sure parents do too.

Recent news articles out of Great Britain reveal that staff members in a Gloucestershire school district have become a food-police force. They were secretly opening children's lunchboxes and photographing the contents. They then scored the various lunches for nutritional value and sent notes to the parents advising them on how to pack healthier meals. Their one concession to the Englishman's cherished privacy was that they didn't identify which child each photographed lunch belonged to.

One might think of this as just another wacky Big Brother anecdote coming out of Europe. But the truth is, food police are already active in American public schools, and it likely won't be long before they start snooping into our kids' lunchboxes. No doubt any child caught with Twinkies, Ho Hos, or Ding Dongs will be sent home immediately, with a note advising his parents on how to provide better meals.

Personally, I look forward to that terse note from some self-important school official warning me that the wheat crackers in my son's Spider-Man lunchbox have "trans fats," or that I failed to provide enough vegetables. I'll welcome the school official's verdict on that sweet treat I included for my little guy (is it okay if it's made with chick-pea flour and organic blueberries that were grown locally and harvested under fair labor practices?).

Even some government officials understand the potential problems with this kind of government meddling. Andrew Lansley, the new British health secretary, recently took on celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's much-ballyhooed school-lunch-reform crusade. Lansley said:

If we are constantly lecturing people and trying to tell them what to do, we will actually find that we undermine and are counterproductive in the results that we achieve.

Jamie Oliver, quite rightly, was talking about trying to improve the diet of children in schools and improving school meals, but the net effect was the number of children eating school meals in many of these places didn't go up, it went down.

So then the schools said: "It's okay to bring packed lunches but we've got to determine what's in the packed lunches . . . "

To which the parents' response was that they gave children money, and children are actually spending more money outside school, buying snacks in local shops, instead of on school lunches.

Lansley is spot on, but he has been lambasted for daring to criticize Oliver, who has become the standard-bearer (both in the U.K. and here) in the battle against childhood obesity. One editorial writer in London called Lansley's criticism a "fearful error"; another called it a "huge mistake"; and one went so far as to suggested Lansley had "taken leave of his senses." Even Prime Minister David Cameron has abandoned his health secretary, lauding Oliver for the positive impact he has had on British schoolchildren.

Personally, I too admire Jamie Oliver. I've been a fan ever since I met him at a congressional event in the mid-Nineties, and I love his recipes and his passion and enthusiasm for cooking. At that congressional event, he was very sweet and humble and seemed genuinely concerned about the issue he was discussing. I find him similarly earnest when I hear him discuss childhood obesity. It's obvious that he really cares about these kids.

And while his West Virginia–filmed television show, Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, was a little on the melodramatic side (what reality show isn't?), I did applaud one of the many methods he employed to tackle the problem: He actually talked to the parents about how they can improve their children's diets. Because ultimately, this is parents' responsibility — not the responsibility of the school district or of the poor kitchen staff trying their best to feed a bunch of picky eaters.

However, Lansley was right to take on another aspect of Oliver's "revolution," by pointing out that government intervention (like dictating from above what school lunchrooms can serve) only leads to more government intervention (opening and photographing the contents of kids' lunchboxes when they choose not to eat the approved school meal).

The childhood-obesity problem looms large, so to speak, in this country, and with the First Lady making it a priority, there's no doubt we'll ultimately see a call for more government intervention. In fact, we've already seen a profusion of proposed government solutions to the obesity problem: soda taxes, salt bans, sugar taxes, bans on certain foods in schools, and the latest — an attack on McDonald's for (gasp!) putting toys in Happy Meals. In addition, the First Lady has promoted a huge increase in funding for the federally subsidized school-lunch program.

But, hopefully, some will heed the advice of Lansley, who seems to understand that the best way to deal with the "epidemic" of childhood obesity is to leave the government out of the equation altogether and to encourage more parental involvement in a child's food decisions.

At the very least, can we keep the government out of our children's home-packed lunchboxes?

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