School Lunch Or; How to Make Government Work

One of the craziest stories I heard while I was in Finland was the shocking tale of the 1999 school lunch reform. The way this worked is that in 1999, parliament passed some legislation guaranteeing a nutritionally balanced school lunch. So the National Nutrition Council wrote some guidelines dictating that a properly balanced lunch would feature fresh or cooked vegetables covering half the plate, a starch (potatoes, rice, or pasta) covering a quarter of the plate, and meat or fish or a vegetarian protein alternative covering the remaining quarter. A desert of berries or fruit is served “if the nutrient content of the main course is not adequately diverse or if it contains little energy” along with skimmed or semi-skimmed milk and bread.

It was a crazy story not because the nutritional guidelines are crazy. Nor because the nutritional guidelines are perfect. This still actually leaves a lot of variance depending on exactly what’s served. But what’s crazy about it is the way it happened. Parliament felt children should eat a well-balanced meal, and so guidelines were written by a government agency and then implemented. Like magic!

It’s very hard to imagine anything like that happening in the United States, where something as basic as the food pyramid winds up being a locus for interest-group politics. Michael Pollan talks to Mother Jones about the way of the world:

MJ: Does WIC still specify that you buy dairy?


MP: Yes. We had a huge fight to get a little more produce in the WIC basket, which is heavy on cheese and milk because the dairy lobby is very powerful. So they fought and they fought and they fought, and they got a bunch of carrots in there. [Laughs.]

MJ: Specifically? Who knew: the carrot lobby?

MP: Specifically carrots. The next big lobby. But there is also money in this farm bill for fresh produce in school lunch. The price of getting the subsidies was getting the California delegation on board, and their price was $2 billon for what are called specialty crops — fresh fruit and produce grown largely in California.

Or watch this video:

Democracy is democracy, politics is politics, and life is what it is. But still, it seems to me that Americans have a deplorable tendency to take pride in the dysfunctional nature of our political system, and actually revel in it. It makes, after all, for a fascinating game in a way that a simple outsourcing of nutritional guidelines to apolitical experts wouldn’t. But I think there’s a big challenge for progressives here. And not just with regard to school lunch, but with regard to the whole thing. There are certain ends that can only be accomplished by state action. But state action is only really tolerable if you can actually make the government work well and an awful lot of our basic institutions just don’t work very well. At the same time, the medium-term policy frontiers increasingly focus on questions of public health and environmental security that have a hefty technical element. A lot of the argument for universal health care hinges on the fact that, in principle, comprehensive reform could deliver a much more efficient system. But will it actually deliver such a system, or will it just deliver whatever happens to get lobbied for? Care that benefits patients, or care that benefits health care providers of various kinds? Those ultimately aren’t questions about the design of any particular plan; instead, they’re questions of whether or not progressive governance can manage to somehow deliver better overall governance.

UPDATE: On a related note, Ezra Klein observes:

CBO occupies a weird space in Washington. They decide what legislation costs. They may get it right or they may get it wrong, but the number they settle on is the number legislators agree to use. And so this morning’s hearings featured powerful senators begging a small, bearded budget geek for favorable judgments as if he were the Oracle at Delphi.

And the thing of it is that while the CBO’s methods aren’t perfect and its conclusions aren’t incontestable, it really does do a pretty good job — good enough that it can continue to be widely respected. And having an expert agency be widely respected and do a pretty good job, thus providing a convergence point for congressional consideration of legislation, is much better than having our legislative debates just proceed with everyone inventing their own cost estimates.