The rolling shit show that is the Trump administration, and his Trumpish ilk in Congress, produces a lot of shock, horror, and tripe. But what if we examine a single little issue that a lot of people don’t know much about: school nutrition. We’ll find a paradigmatic example, a template, that you can use to analyze any other thing coming out of the conservative movement today. You’ll find a fundamental failure of critical thinking results in the cancerous spread of delusional beliefs about the world. With the result of ruining lives in the self-righteously false belief they are making the world better.
The Set Up
Many activists have been circulating a bill proposed in Congress lately that all but eliminates the department of education. No, not the bill the entire text of which reads, “The Department of Education shall terminate on December 31, 2018” (seriously: H.R. 899). I mean, the bill titled, “Choices in Education and No Hungry Kids Act” (H.R. 610). It basically abolishes core federal law governing public schools, and reduces the role of the Secretary of Education to little more than doling out money to the states to pay for private schools.
Most people focus on that. Hello, theocracy—and the ruination of countless lives in the name of corporate greed and their scam schools. As one well-coined phrase puts it, “If you are in a position to consider private school for your child, you probably don’t need to” put them in private school…they’ll do just as well in public school, or even better. And that’s even for elite schools that spend tens of thousands per student each year, and not the garbage schools we’ll get for a mere few thousand, the only amount Republicans will ever countenance—if even that. (Outliers aside, there are only two kinds of Republicans: Republicans whose true secret motto is “fuck the poor”; and Republicans who delusionally believe they can solve the problem of educating the poor for zero cents on the dollar, and thus chafe at even spending a penny.)
But what about the second thing? The “fuck you” to Michelle Obama, which ironically calls itself the “No Hungry Kids Act,” by returning public schools to the previous state of medically malnourished children (and tons of profit for the junk food industry), that the Obama administration was starting to solve by improving cuisine at public schools to rescue the failing health of school children, the legislative outcome of one of Michelle’s major initiatives. Healthy kids? Gross! Conservatives loathed the idea. “That bitch made our food suck,” is how the legend spun out.
But…did she? When I first encountered this, my first thought was, “Well, maybe they’re right. Maybe the standards were so unrealistically health obsessive, that it resulted in inedible food, and thus drove kids to not eat at all, thus worsening their nutrition profile, in the very attempt to over-regulate it?” But, not being an idiot, I didn’t assume my first thought was correct. Instead, my second thought was, “Well, how do I find out?” How do I locate reliable information, that hasn’t been distorted, filtered, or fabricated, regarding the actual impact of the food act? And…as I always recommend when you want to knee-jerk criticize some supposed over-regulation…was there really a problem that the regulation solved? Is it, indeed, making this nation a better place to live? Or a worse one?
Most people don’t even ask these questions. You are idiots. But even most of those who do ask them, lack the critical thinking skills to answer them, and instead get manipulated by whatever propaganda mill makes them feel good—usually by validating their prior uninformed assumptions.
Inside the Delusion
Inside the bubble of the conservative mind, which we can peek into thanks to the Conservative Tribune, this is what the world looks like on this issue:
A powerful group of Republican lawmakers…is urging Congress to end first lady Michelle Obama’s hated school lunch program. … [They’ve] called for the repeal of certain parts of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act Of 2010, the legislative bill that helped enshrine Michelle Obama’s signature program into law. … [Through which] the National School Lunch Program fed about 30 million children each school day in 2014 and cost $12.7 billion.
For perspective, that’s less than 1/310th of the national budget, so if you pay the state a national average of $13,000 in tax each year, you are spending about $41 a year on feeding school kids, less than a dollar a week. If you only pay $6000 in taxes, then you are only spending $20 on this. Not even four dimes a week. You can learn more details here.
We’ll set aside the Republican loathing for any policy campaigned for by a President’s wife (oh, right, they keep doing that). And we’ll set aside speculation about this having anything to do with “uppity black folk” daring to tell das Herrenvolk how to feed their children responsibly. Let’s assume it instead has to do with what conservatives actually said was their reason. In other words, let’s live inside their delusional worldview for a moment and describe the furniture there.
They say the law has to go because “kids aren’t eating the foods, industries can’t comply with the standards, and schools are wasting money.”
Those are fact claims. You know how to test fact claims? With science.
These guys also claim that the law should go because, “since the restrictions on fat, calories, sodium, sugar and other nutritional parameters were enacted in 2012, over 1.2 million students have stopped eating school lunches altogether.” Correlation is not causation, though. The number of kids taking the lunches has steadily hovered around 30 million +/- 1 million for the last twelve years. In that period, kids taking free meals actually increased by over 5 million—and by 1.4 million even since 2012. The 2.7 million who went the other way after 2012 are the kids who had to pay for the meals. Now we know who’s complaining. And that it’s only a small fraction of those still taking part (2.7 million is less than 10% of 30.3 million). More on that in a moment.
These guys also claim that “the bill’s insistence on every student taking a fruit or a vegetable—whether they intend to eat it or not—has created a massive amount of food waste from students simply throwing them away.” Because, you know, fuck fruits and vegetables. Why would we ask our kids to eat those? Yuck. Then they show pictures of how hideous the lunches look—though they don’t show any pictures of what the lunches used to look like (so we don’t actually know if these look worse). Nor do they verify that the pictures they selected were typical, rather than examples of bad implementation, at the worst schools. More on that in a moment.
The Triubune concludes:
These lunches did have one advantageous aspect to them: They taught our youngsters in a very corporeal, practical way exactly what happens when bureaucrats start messing with your life. Now that they’ve served that purpose, it’s time for Michelle’s lunches to go.
Okay. That’s the world as they see it.
What does the world look like when you look at it with science?
The Science of School Lunch
A peer-reviewed scientific study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine in 2014 (“Impact of the New U.S. Department of Agriculture School Meal Standards on Food Selection, Consumption, and Waste“) found that even immediately after implementation (where policy success will be at its lowest, since it can take a few years to work the kinks out of a new system):
After the new standards were implemented, fruit selection increased by 23.0% and entrée and vegetable selection remained unchanged. Additionally, post-implementation entrée consumption increased by 15.6%, vegetable consumption increased by 16.2%, and fruit consumption remained the same. …
Although food waste levels were substantial both pre- and post-implementation, the new guidelines have positively affected school meal selection and consumption. Despite the increased vegetable portion size requirement, consumption increased and led to significantly more cups of vegetables consumed. Significantly more students selected a fruit, whereas the overall percentage of fruit consumed [per student] remained the same, resulting in more students consuming fruits. Contrary to media reports, these results suggest that the new school meal standards have improved students’ overall diet quality. Legislation to weaken the standards is not warranted.
Multiple studies have since confirmed these results. Moreover, studies show the new dietary policy is even more successful when we let kids have more time to eat…at least 25 minutes. Why the fuck there are schools in this country that aren’t even giving kids half a fucking hour to eat lunch, beats me. But it ain’t Michelle Obama’s fault, I guarantee it. The only studies showing increased food waste are among rich kids. Probably because rich kids are irresponsible douchebags? I’m sure we could prove that scientifically if it were worth the bother.
Anyway. As an article for the Pew Charitable Trusts reports:
Under the updated standards, children’s eating habits are improving, which is a core goal of these strengthened policies. Students of all ages are choosing lunches higher in nutritional quality and lower in calories per gram and consuming more fruits and larger shares of their entrees and vegetables. Some studies also measured plate waste—the food taken and later discarded by kids—and found that it stayed the same or declined after the transition to healthier menus.
So the claim that “kids aren’t eating the foods” is false. As Pew reports, most schools have faced little or no difficulty meeting the requirements, and what difficulties they had could be fixed with minor tweaks to the law (some new requirements passed into law recently should probably not have been), or more often with wider implementation of executive strategies. For example waste was reduced substantially by simply holding tasting events so students become aware of whether they like or dislike a food choice before having to make that choice in practice…go figure.
Illustrating this last point, that good implementation matters more than the law itself:
Directors whose programs prepared more foods from scratch and increased the use of salad bars were more likely to report that student participation rose or was unchanged from SY 2011-12 to 2014-15. Conversely, declines in participation were seen most often by directors who purchased more commercially prepared foods or decreased menu options.
Thus, as one can see, it’s not the law, but local execution of the law that makes a difference. If half of food directors report difficulties, they clearly need to learn from the other half who don’t. The notion that “industries can’t comply with the standards” is nowhere in evidence. Nor is there any evidence “schools are wasting money.” To the contrary, “84 percent of program directors reported rising or stable combined revenue,” not a loss of revenue. Thus, quite evidently, the reasons Republicans are giving for wanting to abolish the law are, sadly, yet more “alternative facts.” And for those who weren’t aware, “alternative fact” is just code for false.
Many of these same studies are showing student nutrition is substantially improving, which we already know will improve their educational performance and quality of life, and reduce medical costs on them, and the nation, in the long term. It will also increase a healthy workforce and thus increase national productivity and prosperity, and ensure a fit population to man our military. I added that last sentence because Republicans love things that give the U.S. more money and power. After all, aren’t we supposed to be making America great again? I think I read somewhere that that meant, among other things, less sickly. Or maybe I dreamed it. Oh, you silly dreams.
Don’t Trust Wikipedia on Politically Volatile Topics
Demagogues love to edit those articles to spew propaganda. And it can be a monstrous chore to fix it. So it often stays there. This affords a nice example. The entry for the Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 has a “Criticism” section that says several outlandish things, backed by sources that don’t have sources. It’s a nice trick. Wikipedia standards require a claim to be based on a source; but those standards don’t require that that source be based on any source. Remember that. Always check the sources—and keep going, until you get to an actual source. Or discover there is none. And when you find none, conclude a claim is bullshit until evidence materializes otherwise. (I’ve written about fact-checking like this before.)
Wikipedia claims the law is bad because “a study done by Harvard School of Public Health discovered that about 60 percent of vegetables and roughly 40 percent of fresh fruit are thrown away due to no interest.” That’s weird. Because we just looked at the studies. From Harvard. And they didn’t find that to be the case. What Harvard study are they talking about then? The footnote points you to…an unresolvable search on ProQuest. Nice. We’re assured the study exists. But not told what the study was called, when it was published, or where.
Well, when I go to the website of the actual Harvard School of Public Health, I find this. A summary of the actual study. It’s the one I just discussed above, published in AJPM. Which is funny. Because that says they found exactly the fucking opposite. Oh, right. Lying with statistics. “Students discarded roughly 75% of vegetables before the USDA school meal standards went into effect and 60% of vegetables after the standards went into effect” becomes “students discarded 60% of vegetables after the standards went into effect,” which is supposed to shock us into thinking the policy change caused them to throw more food away. Simply by leaving out that other half of the equation: what we are supposed to be comparing it to.
In actual fact, the new policy resulted in fewer vegetables being trashed. The rate dropped from 75% to 60%. And with fruit, the rate of waste remained unchanged (“they threw out roughly 40% of fruits on their trays both before and after the implementation of the new standards”). And I’ll bet we could do better than that, with better implementation of school culinary policy, but even so. There has been no increased waste. To the contrary, it has decreased. And students are eating more fruits and vegetables. You might ask, how can more kids be eating fruit, if the same amount of fruit is thrown away? Why, because more students under the new policy are selecting fruit for their trays in the first place (an increase of 23% in fact). So even with the same rate of waste afterward, the net effect is more kids consuming fruit.
Wikipedia also claims “the amount of food students did not eat but threw away instead increased by 56 percent.” That’s weird again. Because it also contradicts the science. Where did that number come from? An article for The Hill. It claims “Researchers from the University of Vermont” developed that statistic. What researchers from Vermont? We’ll never know. Because that link sends us to an article about executive chefs advising schools on how to make tasty lunches under the new guidelines. It never mentions any researchers from Vermont. Or any statistic. Much less this “56%.” So, Wikipedia cites a statistic from an article that cites no source for that statistic. Lovely. Well, surely it must have come from somewhere. So let’s try to find the study they forgot to link us to…
A little Googling, and I found that they probably meant this study. Which critics noted only tracked two small elementary schools, and only for the first year of implementation. As we just saw above, longer term, larger scale studies did not replicate the Vermont findings. Science! At least, science for those who believe in science. You know, those who would not cite a study that failed to be replicated, and fail to cite a better, larger study that found very different results; and all the other studies that did. Conservatives like disproved studies that validate their worldview. They don’t like good science, because it rarely validates their worldview. So beware of selective citation like this. In actual fact, the success of a culinary policy depends on management at the local level, not directives from the national level. A shitty restaurant and a good restaurant can actually spend exactly the same amount on their food. The difference isn’t their menu. It’s their staff.
Wikipedia also says “one of the biggest points of criticism…is meal participation, and the participations has not increased, but decreased,” yet as we just saw, that’s barely even true (the decline has been minimal), and only true for affluent kids. And only a fraction of them…the spoiled and irresponsible ones, I expect. Not exactly the kind we should want to be emulated by kids nationwide. Meanwhile, kids seeking free meals under the new program have actually increased. More of the poor are thus eating better than the rich. Which, at best, is rich people’s fault. Let them get diabetes and obesity. They’re rich. They can afford it. Oh wait, no they can’t. Republicans don’t care about anyone’s health. Because they think a sick population will totes be good for the economy and national security. But that’s a discussion for another day.
And then Wikipedia says “the program has declined by nearly 4 percent” (as if 4 percent of 31 million meant a lot; but we’ve already covered that), “and some schools have lost revenue due to the decline in participation, therefore, many are choosing to opt out of the program as a whole,” which is a nice trick with the math. “Some.” Hmmm. So, most are not losing revenue! That’s what they are hiding from us with their mathematical legerdemain. They are hoping you are too innumerate to notice. But gosh. I wonder if that majority of successful, profitable schools can teach those other schools how to not lose money at this? Do you think? Maybe? Perhaps we could find out first before deciding we know?
It’s also a neat trick to go from “some” to “many,” making it sound like more schools are opting out than were losing money, a patently illogical notion. Maybe “many” of that minority of schools that couldn’t make revenue were opting out, but that would still be even fewer than the “some” they started their sentence with. But “many” sounds like more than “some.” So, again, they hope you are too innumerate to notice the semantic trick they just pulled on you.
And what was their source for this? That same article for The Hill. Hmm. We just established it’s not a reliable source. Whoah. Hold on… What did even that shady source say exactly? “Some schools have lost revenue due to the decline in participation and are choosing to opt out of the program entirely.” Sooo….how did “some” in their source turn into “many” in Wikipedia? The word “many” appears nowhere in their source. Nor does any number. We have no idea what “some” means. Might it be a trivial number? Like, say, half of one percent? And why are 99.5% of schools succeeding at implementation but these other schools not? Could it be (gasp!) that almost all schools are making good decisions, and that the failing schools should emulate them, and stop making bad decisions? Hmmm. That’s an idea. You might want to try that first. Before trashing an entire program that even conservatives admit is successful in most schools nationwide.
Hopefully you’ve gleaned some critical thinking skills from this example.
- Check the sources for any claim, and then follow the source trail until you confirm the claim has a reliable source…or that it doesn’t. Judge accordingly.
- Don’t be fooled by deceptive mathematical wording like “some.” Remember the opposite of “some” is usually “most.” Take note of what it means when most of something is exactly the opposite of what someone tells you.
- Remember a statistic is useless if you aren’t told what it’s to be compared with. It does no good to be told that after a policy was implemented, kids threw away 60% of their vegetables. Because that’s actually an improvement if they were throwing away 75% of them before the policy. Always ask for the comparand.
- Make sure you have the facts right (get the best, most accurate facts), and that you have all of them (if someone is leaving something out, go fill it back in).
And when it comes to reasoning about policy, don’t buy into the fallacy of “this implementation sucked, therefore this law should be repealed.” If the implementation sucked, the solution is better implementation. Period. In other words, probably the law should be improved, not repealed. Or there is nothing wrong with the law at all: a failing executive is not the fault of the law; it’s a fault of the executive. Fire them. And hire someone who knows what they’re doing. Or teach them to do it better. If many schools are nailing it, it clearly can be nailed. And that’s teachable. I know Americans have a really hard time with the idea that you have to have a competent executive to have an effective policy, or that policy can be improved by the people bungling it learning from the people who are doing it right. When things aren’t going well, it’s not always the law that’s the problem.
Meanwhile, if you’re interested in the issue of school nutrition, and the new bill to destroy it, I highly recommend Bettina Elias Siegel’s blog, The Lunch Tray. I expect she will be writing on this fiasco soon.