Food Policy: Autonomy, Inconvenience, and School Lunch


1941-1945; via Wikimedia Commons.

1941-1945; via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s been said that Americans’ one fear is inconvenience. Whether this fear is a societal ill is up for debate. Some would say that a fear of inconvenience is a breeding ground for apathy and lack of progress. On the other hand, you might argue it’s a fairly harmless and inevitable by-product of a society with increased access to technology designed to make our lives more convenient. Either way, the fear of inconvenience seems to be a fixture of American culture at this point. And while it’s there, we might as well use it to our benefit. Inconvenience, as the one thing Americans fear, can be used to dissuade us from making decisions that will poorly impact our health and lives.

In particular, America can use inconvenience as a tool to dissuade kids from eating fattening, non-nutritious foods throughout the day. While I think Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” program and initiatives to improve the nutritional value of school lunches are noble, they’re not quite enough. Schools are still full of vending machines, Coke and Pepsi advertisements, and even fast food from chain restaurants sold at lunchtime. None of these are acceptable.

Opponents argue that removing fast food from schools is futile: kids who really want junk food will find a way to eat junk food. There’s some truth to that. When it comes down to it, it’s nearly impossible to stop people from doing what they really want to do. At the same time, though, you can make it far less convenient for people to engage in harmful habits.

I wouldn’t call myself a paternalist; in fact, I quite like having autonomy over my body and I think that’s a right people should have. I do, however, believe that there are certain times in which a population’s public health concerns trump the individual’s right to personal decision making—especially when those individuals are kids, whose legal decision-making power is pretty limited already. The policy I am suggesting, however, does not override kids’ autonomy at all. After all, convenience and autonomy are not the same thing. Removing fast food from schools does not preclude kids from getting it elsewhere if they want to. What it does stop them from doing, though, is eating junk food just because it happens to be available.

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Lunch at DC Public Schools on 10/9/12: Local Beef Burger on a Whole Wheat Bun, Roasted Brussel Sprouts, Baked Potato Fries, Cantaloupe Wedge & Milk

Some opponents of this sort of regulation have expressed concern that, in the absence of tasty but unhealthful foods, many children would simply opt not to eat rather than waste their time on vegetables. However, there is evidence that contradicts this notion. A Texas study from the early 2000s (which you can read here) found that, after schools removed such items as sugary beverages and pastries from their lunch menus, the overall consumption of vegetables in schools Increased significantly, including among students whose demographics are disproportionately affected by obesity.

America has seen the power of using inconvenience for the sake of public health in its very successful regulation of the tobacco industry. Efforts to reduce smoking rates and new smokers—including taxation, age limits for purchase, smoking bans in certain types of establishment, and keeping tobacco behind the counter to reduce the ease of purchase—have been remarkably effective. Of course, there are more layers to these results that pure inconvenience, such as less affordable cigarettes and better education about the harms of smoking. But it’s hard to deny that these measures made smoking far more burdensome for those who smoke, or for people (usually kids under the age of 18) who consider taking up smoking.

Some critique the obesity/tobacco use analogy with the argument that “secondhand obesity” does not exist the way that secondhand smoke does. In some ways, this is a fair point. Breathing in secondhand smoke can directly lead to emphysema, asthma attacks, lung cancer, and many more ailments; one cannot contract diabetes from being in the presence of people who are obese. In a way, though, secondhand obesity is real. People are heavily influenced by their food environments. Studies have shown that the children of obese parents are far more likely to become obese than those with parents at healthy weights, and that close friends of obese people are as much as 57% more likely to become obese themselves. This is yet another reason that improving the nutritional quality of school lunches is so important: if schools can instill good nutritional habits in even one child, those habits are far more likely to spread to others. After all, schools are places of social as well as academic learning, where kids learn just as much from their peers as from their teachers.

No one policy change is going to fix American public health. If the obesity epidemic ever does die down, it will do so gradually over the course of many years. Making it less convenient for kids to eat junk food won’t stop them from eating it, nor will it ensure good health for future generations. But it’s important to pick our battles, and the fight against unhealthy school lunch is one we can probably win.


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