When choice is bad

Published in FSD Update

Federal guidelines are a step in the right direction for some, but not everyone chooses to follow them.

Having the option of choice is a good thing, right? Not always.

The USDA has taken great strides recently to ensure that every meal served to the country’s students is healthy. For years child nutrition professionals have been asking the federal agency for national guidelines that would put every district on equal footing and help manufacturers produce consistent products for every customer in every state. That’s what the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act has done. The rules aren’t perfect, by any means, but they are a step in the right direction.

My home state of Texas, however, decided that it didn’t like being constricted by federal guidelines, specifically those addressing competitive foods. Shortly after the USDA released its proposed rules regarding à la carte food sales in schools, the state legislature passed a law that would “prohibit the Department of Agriculture from imposing sanctions on a school district based on the sale of food of minimal nutritional value to students at a high school.” (In Texas, child nutrition programs are under the purview of the state’s Department of Agriculture.) 

This particular law addresses the issue of student fundraisers and mandates that no sanctions can be imposed if a food item is “made outside of a school area designated for food service or food consumption or during a period other than a school meal service period for the purpose of raising money for a student organization or activity.” 

The impetus for the law could have been $73,000 in fines that eight Houston ISD schools were charged for violating competitive food guidelines. One school, Westbury High School, was fined because a coach sold fried chicken on campus to raise money for his team. 

The Texas law (HB 1781), which went into effect June 14, is at odds with the USDA’s newly released rules regarding competitive foods, which states that exemptions for foods sold outside school meals program, i.e., fundraisers, will be determined by the state agency. If the state agency does not set a limit for the number of exemptions, none will be granted. 

I’m all about giving people choice, when appropriate. But sometimes choice needs to be restricted for the better good, especially when it protects those who are too young to make the best choices for their health, as in the case with elementary students and the selling of foods of minimal nutritional value. In this instance, there’s no reason for states to enact their own versions of laws that conflict with the USDA’s. That only muddles an already complex situation. 

In most cases, however, I don’t advocate the removal of choice. Take the 10-year-old Meatless Monday movement, for example. In this month’s Analysis (p. 52), Editorial Director Paul King looks at what happens when operators remove customers’ choices in the name of a campaign. In many situations, the end result isn’t favorable.

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