The Obama administration has always wanted to nudge people, that is, to get them to do the right thing by giving them a slight push in the right direction. Nudging sounds a lot better than forcing.
The idea came from behavioral economics, and it has felt, to many, like a new way to manipulate citizens, to get them to do what the government wants them to do, whether they like it or not.
The obvious question about nudging has always been: what makes you think that government bureaucrats and even legislators know what is best for you? Nudging seems to be a new way to give your freedom to the government.
Nothing very new there. Just the method, not the goal.
You recall Michelle Obama’s signature achievement, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. One may question whether MO was the best placed to promote healthy dieting, but by now we know that the program, whereby the government dictates what children eat for lunch, has failed abysmally.
One needs to mention, yet again, that nutritional science is, to put it mildly, in constant flux. Many of the beliefs about what we should or should not eat have turned out to be nonsense. And yet people still follow them as though they were holy writ. We have managed to produce the most obese nation on earth, a nation that is obsessed with dieting.
To keep the nutrition side in perspective, I recommend a summary of the food myths that prevail in America today, by Dr. Joy Bliss.
In any event, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids act has produced so many unhealthy, hungry kids that even the New York Times has noticed.
According to Kate Murphy’s news analysis the program has caused children to hate lunch and to throw out their food. Think of all the hungry children around the world, our parents used to tell us. Now our government has found a way to induce children to waste food. If it had been trying to nudge them in that direction, it would have been interesting psychologically, but, as it is, the government is doing little more than wasting food, bankrupting school districts and teaching children to hate food.
The children who refuse to eat MO’s healthy food are always hungry, so they sneak off to gorge themselves on whatever they want. Those who eat it feel nutritionally deprived and unsatisfied. Thus, they sneak off to gorge themselves on whatever they want.
Food and nutrition directors at school districts nationwide say that their trash cans are overflowing while their cash register receipts are diminishing as children either toss out the healthier meals or opt to brown-bag it. While no one argues that the solution is to scrap the law and go back to feeding children junk, there’s been a movement to relax a few of the guidelines as Congress considers whether to reauthorize the legislation, particularly mandates for 100 percent whole grains and extremely low sodium levels, so school meals will be a bit more palatable and reflective of culinary traditions.
Of course, the program should be scrapped. If no one is saying so, then that is the problem. School districts should be given the freedom to provide lunches that children will actually eat.
Can’t these solons recognize failure when they see it? And, isn’t the lesson here that, to these great bureaucratic minds, children’s tastes do not matter. Their preferences do not count. What lesson is that teaching our children?
And yet, cafeteria operators complain, the new regulations forbid them to serve a classic baguette, semolina pasta or jasmine rice, much less the butter and flavorful sauces that often go with them. Never mind that these are staples of diets in other cultures with far lower rates of childhood and adult obesity than in the United States.
Keep in mind, behavioral economics is supposed to be science. Keep in mind that all of the nutritional information that forms the basis of the program has been shown, by the experience of other countries, to be nonsense. Here we have yet another case where ideals are blinding people to reality.
Consider that in France, where the childhood obesity rate is the lowest in the Western world, a typical four-course school lunch (cucumber salad with vinaigrette, salmon lasagna with spinach, fondue with baguette for dipping and fruit compote for dessert) would probably not pass muster under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, because of the refined grains, fat, salt and calories. Nor would the weekly piece of dark chocolate cake.
By comparison, a typical federally approved school lunch in the United States is a “reformulated” Philly cheesesteak sandwich (low-fat, low-salt processed cheese and lean mystery meat on a whole grain bun) with steamed green beans, a potato wedge, canned peaches and an apple. Students often have less than 20 minutes to eat this before returning to class, while French children may have as long as two hours to eat and socialize.
Americans are obsessed with dieting. The French believe in eating a variety of foods and taking the time to have a conversation during a meal. They also have the lowest obesity rates in the Western world. Why is this not relevant?
Why does the track record of the Unhealthy, Hungry Kids Food-Wasting Program not count?
In Murphy’s words:
Not surprisingly, American kids, whether pressed for time or just grossed out, leave much of their meals untouched; particularly neglected are the fruits and vegetables, which they are now forced to put on their trays before they can exit the cafeteria line.
The School Nutrition Association said that 70 percent of school meal programs had taken a significant financial hit since the new mandates went into effect. Cafeteria operators from Los Angeles to New York report discouraging amounts of food waste and declining participation. “We lost 15 percent of our revenue when we started putting the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act into place,” said Chris Burkhardt, director of child nutrition and wellness at the Lakota Local School District in southwestern Ohio. “I talk to P.T.O. and P.T.A. groups and ask how many serve only whole grains and low sodium foods at home and maybe one hand goes up,” adding that he’s not convinced that person was telling the truth.
Besides, Murphy continues, these efforts to control children’s diets are giving them exactly the wrong attitude about food. It is encouraging unhealthy diets and binge eating, along with guilt. It is ruining their relationship with food:
In addition, by forbidding certain foods and coercively promoting others, some worry that the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act may perpetuate Americans’ uneasy, binge-prone relationship with food.
Karen Le Billon, visiting professor of environmental studies at Stanford and author of “French Kids Eat Everything,” said in France there was “no guilt or blame around food,” but rather “it’s more about moderation than deprivation.” Most French children and adults, she said, have no clue about the caloric content of foods, and the general attitude about fat, such as naturally found in nut butters, avocados or a creamy piece of cheese, is “it’s tasty so why not eat it?” — particularly when it promotes feelings of satiety so you won’t snack between meals.
“It’s not rocket science and it’s not only the French,” said Ms. Le Billon, who divides her time between Palo Alto, Calif., Vancouver, Canada and Brittany. “These are things that parents in other less obese countries, like Japan and Italy, know and teach their kids but we have somehow forgotten. We are a culture of constant eating and it’s not working in terms of keeping us at a healthy weight.”
It’s so obvious that anyone who is not a behavioral economist can understand it. Moderation in all things. Nothing complicated about that. A piece of cheese or a slice of chocolate cake makes you feel satisfied. Thus, you snack less. An MO lunch makes you feel hungry so you are more likely to binge eat and to feel guilty about it.
Funnily enough, Americans were supposed to be pragmatic. They were supposed to allow reality to determine the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of policy. Thanks to the Obama administration and behavioral economics, such seems no longer to be the case.