06/22/2010 02:16 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

School Food Independence

A few years ago I was asked to serve on the Wellness Committee that was being formed by the Iowa City School District, under a federal mandate to improve the health of school children. Having made lunch every morning for my kids because I'd seen the "food" they were served in the cafeterias, I was pleased to have the opportunity. The result of my nearly two years of banging my head against the brick wall of district and federal bureaucracy was the living example of the old Upton Sinclair line:

"It is difficult to convince a man of something when his salary depends on him not understanding it."

Admittedly my goals were lofty, not just removing junk food from menus and machines but bringing in lots of fresh local produce and planting gardens at the schools. The progress that we did make was indeed positive, if minimal. We produced a set of guidelines that called for more healthy options, and for shutting off the vending machines during lunch (an admittedly pointless activity that any child could work around).

I was thinking about all this around a year ago when I saw a segment on MSNBC's "Countdown with Keith Olbermann" program in which he lists his daily choices for the worst people in the world. The "winner" that night was Cynthia Davis, who represents the 19th District of the State Congress in the place we lovingly call Baja Iowa (most of you call it Missouri). She apparently had the political fortitude - if not aptitude - to advocate for child hunger.

Her complaint was that the state was funding school lunches for kids even during the summer, when school was out, saying in part, "Anyone under 18 can be eligible? Can't they get a job during the summer by the time they are 16?" Adding (and I am not making this up) "Hunger can be a positive motivator." Olbermann rightly pointed out here that 1 in 5 Missouri children already is "motivated" by hunger. She goes on to suggest that the kids can work at McDonald's where they can eat for free during breaks.

A friend who once worked in a McDonald's assures me that this is not in fact the case, but even if it were, this State Representative is flagrantly stating that saving a few tax dollars now is more important that the health and welfare of our children. This from the Chair of the Missouri House Standing Committee on Children and Families.

Back here in Iowa the state Board of Education finally approved a new set of nutritional guidelines, but legislatures have never seen a "well enough" that they could leave alone. So in Des Moines they set the guidelines aside "temporarily" so that they could stand on the floor of the Senate and put forth cogent arguments like "You know, you're going to have this exodus of kids walking across the street to the convenience store, or more of 'em that are just going to say, 'I'm skipping lunch. I'm bringing my own food. We're going to be selling Mountain Dew, black market, out of the tops of lockers.'"

Now this, from Iowa State Senator Merlin Bartz (R-Grafton) is the sort of knee-jerk reactionary nonsense that truly pins my ears back. He also warned colleagues that there would be a backlash if schoolteachers and administrators turn into the "food police." Ah, where to start?

Senator Bartz, in case you're reading this, using rhetoric like "food police" is a convenient way to scare people, but it doesn't begin to describe what should or would happen. The teachers and administrators are responsible not only for the education of our children, but also for their health and well-being while they are in schools. They learn just as much from what they are fed as from what they are taught, perhaps more.

When we tell our children in their health classes that eating a nutritious, balanced diet full of fruits and vegetables is important to their overall health, and then the very same school sells them the very junk they'd jut been advised against, just what lesson do we think they will draw? There are no cigarette vending machines in our schools for a very good reason. We must not tell them one thing, and then turn around and supplement budgets that the legislature cuts by selling them something else. It's the height of hypocrisy.

If a "black market" were to result, it could be easily regulated through the same measures that stop kids from selling drugs from their lockers. And as for kids bringing food from home, they can do that now; and those who do tend to bring healthier, fresher food. Even if they don't, at least the district is not profiting from peddling fat, sugar and chemicals to our children.

So let's implement the guidelines as they stand, and let's work toward improving them in the meantime. Might it cost more to bring healthier, preferably local food into our cafeterias? Probably. When someone can show me a higher priority for our society than the health and well-being of our children, then I'll begin advocating for that as well. But I simply can't see one.