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Conservatives and Chocolate Milk

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Lawmakers in the state of Connecticut recently passed legislation to ban chocolate milk from the state’s public schools. The milk ban was included in a bill to make “minor revisions” to the state’s education statutes that unanimously passed both chambers of the Connecticut General Assembly on the final night of the legislative session.

Milk served in Connecticut public schools must not receive more than 35 percent of its calories from fat and no more than 10 percent of its calories from saturated fat. The milk must contain “no artificial sweeteners, nonnutritive sweeteners or sugar alcohols, no added sodium, and no more than four grams of sugar per ounce.”

According to Pat Baird, a registered dietitian nutritionist and the president of the Connecticut Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the language in the bill means that “chocolate milk would be eliminated from school lunches because there is no chocolate milk without sodium.”

Rep. Timothy Ackert, the ranking Republican on Connecticut’s Education Committee, said the committee was told by legislative attorneys that “they had to adopt the provision based on the federal Hunger-Free Kids Act. He said they were told they couldn’t change the language and if they did they could risk losing federal funds headed to the state.”

The attorneys in question were referring to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (S.3307, P.L. 111-296), legislation to reauthorize federal child nutrition programs for five years. According to the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), The legislation “authorizes funding and sets policy for USDA’s core child nutrition programs: the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), the Summer Food Service Program, and the Child and Adult Care Food Program.”

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act specifically targets childhood obesity. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who hailed the legislation when it was passed, stated, “When President Obama first asked me to be the Secretary of Agriculture, he identified healthier school meals as one of my top priorities and together with First Lady Michelle Obama’s Lets Move! initiative, this administration has made it a goal to end childhood obesity within in a generation.”

Although the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act passed by unanimous consent in 2010 in the Senate, only 17 Republicans in the Democratic-controlled House voted in favor of the bill. Conservatives have criticized the legislation and the First Lady’s signature issue ever since. A Rasmussen poll in 2010 found that “only 23 percent of those surveyed think the federal government should have a direct role in setting the nutritional standards for public schools.”

The best known and most expensive of the child nutrition programs is the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), a federal program administered by state education agencies. It provides free or reduced-cost lunches to more than 31 million children each school day. Children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level are eligible for a free lunch. Those from families with incomes between 130 and 185 percent of the poverty level are eligible for a reduced-cost lunch. The federal government reimburses schools $2.93 for free lunches and $2.53 for reduced-price lunches. Schools receive additional money for each lunch if they are certified to be in compliance with updated meal requirements, as do schools with high percentages of low-income students. The program cost $11.6 billion in fiscal year 2012.

One can see why Connecticut lawmakers don’t want to risk losing federal funds. Chocolate milk, of course, was never the real issue. Some have even argued that banning chocolate milk will have negative consequences. The aforementioned Pat Baird said that the ban “will have a significant impact on school meal participation and ultimately nutrient intake for students.” She explained that “research has shown that when chocolate milk is not served, milk consumption drops 35 percent and does not recover.” Eliminating chocolate milk “hardly moves the needle on added sodium intake; but what it does remove is critical nutrients for growth and development,” she added. Lonnie Burt, the chief nutritionist of Hartford Public Schools, said that “if chocolate milk is not one of the available options, then I believe students will decrease consumption of milk overall.” Connecticut governor Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, has pledged to veto the bill.

This insignificant issue of a ban on chocolate milk in Connecticut public schools is an ideal vehicle to point out the significant issue of conservative support for the welfare state.

While conservatives may decry the increased scope of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act and the attempted ban on chocolate milk that it engendered as examples of idiocy, a nanny state, the erosion of federalism, and government that is too intrusive, they have no principled or philosophical objection to the National School Lunch Program or any other federal child nutrition program.

In fact, the last time those programs were reauthorized, by the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004 (S.2507, P.L. 108-265), the legislation was introduced by a Republican in the Senate, passed by unanimous consent in the Republican-controlled Senate, passed without objection in the Republican-controlled House, and signed into law by a Republican president.

That means that instead of eliminating the National School Lunch Program and other federal child nutrition programs when they had control of the government, Republicans under George W. Bush — while reciting their mantra of free enterprise, private property, and limited government — reauthorized and expanded them, just as they also greatly expanded federal spending on education during this time.

Conservatives outside of Congress were too busy at the time defending Bush’s senseless and unjust wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to be concerned about eliminating unconstitutional and redistributionist welfare programs. That is, they were more interested in expanding the warfare state than in contracting the welfare state.

Conservatives generally oppose only the most egregious outrages and comical shenanigans of federal and state governments. But even their opposition to certain provisions of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act is puzzling. Certainly they are aware of the old adage “He who pays the piper calls the tune.” Are they naive enough to think that money from the government comes with no strings attached in the form of regulations? Are conservatives being consistent when they support the National School Lunch Program and then criticize its nutritional guidelines? And why get upset about federal school lunch requirements when you support a federal department of education, federal aid to education, federal student loans, federal research grants to schools, federal vouchers for education, federal Pell Grants, federal math and science initiatives, and federal regulation and oversight of state educational systems?

There is no doubt that some children go to school hungry, have no lunch to take to school, go home from school hungry, don’t get healthy meals at home, et cetera. But that doesn’t negate the truth about the National School Lunch Program and other federal child nutrition programs: They are funded by money taken from taxpayers and funneled through federal and state education bureaucracies. Like all welfare programs, they involve taking money out of the pockets of some Americans and redistributing it to other Americans. That is what conservatives should be objecting to. After all, they are the ones who tout their reverence for the Constitution (which nowhere authorizes the federal government to have anything to do with education) and their opposition to the redistribution of wealth.

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