You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. This adage has almost limitless applications, especially in a culture of self-entitlement almost paradoxically coupled with the prevalence of a willfully benighted attitude concerning intelligent self-interest. This is not to say that attempts to make people do the things that are good for them aren’t prone to overreach, most notably when what’s “good” gets effectively standardized. Whether we’re talking the Eighteenth Amendment or Bloomberg’s failed New York soda restrictions, the heart of such theoretically edifying legislation is in the right place. Upon actual implementation, however, it is often characterized as condescending, presumptuous, invasive and ineffective.
That seems to be one of the narratives implicit in the recent Twitter trendiness of the not-so-recently instantiated #ThanksMichelleObama. Supposedly a play on the groaning, although sometimes ironic, lament “Thanks Obama,” the hashtag, which has been kicking around since 2012, features pictures of some unappetizing examples of school lunches that presumably meet the new(ish) nutrition standards championed by the First Lady. These sarcastic expressions of gratitude are sandwiched by earnest thanks from groups such as Moms Rising and posts that can only be either clever jokes from students or epic failures by school cafeterias in attempting to meet said standards (personal favorite: slice of pizza adorned with a single pepperoni).
Perhaps sparked by reports of late that kids are just dumping much of their fruit-and-vegetable-heavy meals straight into the trash, the trend aligns nicely with the general movement by libertarian-minded Jeremiahs to discredit anyone proposing legislation that even remotely tells autonomous citizens what to do. For their part (and their tweets), supporters of the standards have their own reports to cite, including one conducted by Harvard’s School of Public Health, that indicate that the new meal rules have resulted in a significant uptick in kids willfully eating their greens and drops in obesity rates.
No matter which batch of contradictory studies a given reader finds more compelling, the binary rhetoric of socialistic paternalism and protective advocacy doesn’t seem to satisfy the nuance required of arguments related to child nutrition, especially when those arguments intersect with what gets funded in public education. That is, while the nutrition standards for public schools can be accurately identified as “government regulation,” the impetus for that regulation was not the White House wanting to tell parents how to raise their children. It was, at least in part, a response to obesity rates in children combined with the ways that good nutrition factors into children’s classroom attention and facility for learning (and for some students, food from a school cafeteria comprises the only “meal” those children will see each day). In no way did the policies infringe on a parent’s right to send a child to school with a home-packed lunch full of Twinkies, soda and Snack Packs.
As a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agency charged with overseeing school lunch programs, told Capital OTC, “Students are always provided full servings of both fruits and vegetables as well as protein options, so clearly many of the photos posted do not fully reflect the full range of choices students are provided.” When exaggeration for comic effect or shock value are considered, it becomes equally clear that the success or failure of Michelle Obama’s lunch crusade should not be decided by social media feeds. Add to this that the ideological arguments of a politically near-sighted parent neither feed a child nor feed a child well, and the notion that a program’s results should not be lauded or condemned if it lacked the funding and, as a consequence, the personnel and training to be implemented correctly in the first place. Finally, and maybe most importantly, producing appetizing photographs of food is just hard to begin with.
The trend will complete its cycle in the next few days, likely culminating in competing photographs of Obama force-feeding fifth graders and the burgeoning generation of supermen nourished by the fruits of Michelle’s intervention. Unfortunately, the image of the lonely hot dog on a plastic tray will live on as our collective approximation of informed discussion. Bon appetite.