By Ryan McNeely
Andrew Lansley, the new UK Health Secretary, has announced that the government is canceling its support for Jamie Oliver’s famous “healthy schools” initiative that strives to put nutritious food in UK school cafeterias. This is a reversal for Lansley, who once admonished his fellow Tories for not supporting Oliver’s approach, and it follows an earlier announcement that the new government will scrap a Labour plan to serve free meals to 500,000 low-income children in primary school. These cuts are of a piece with the austerity movement in the UK, but Lansley offered up this reason for the change in policy:
“If we are constantly lecturing people and trying to tell them what to do, we will actually find that we undermine and are counterproductive in the results that we achieve.”
…”the parents’ response was that they gave children money, and children are actually spending more money outside school, buying snacks in local shops, instead of on school lunches.”
The government cited a study showing that there was a dropoff in the number of students buying cafeteria food: “In 19 of the 27 schools, there was between a 9 per cent and 25 per cent drop in the number of pupils eating school meals.”
Is this necessarily bad news? I’m not sure that a world in which all children are eating unhealthy processed food is superior to a world in which three-quarters of children eat healthy food with the rest opting-out — and that is the study’s worst-case scenario. If government-sponsored social policy tries to nudge people’s behavior in a certain direction, then I suppose in a sense it will “tell people what to do” by definition. But if Lansley believes that the program literally tells people what to do by limiting choice, that is belied by the data that shows that some children are choosing not to participate. No one is being forced to do or eat anything.
No program is perfect, of course. But nutrition is extremely important to children’s health and educational attainment, and shortchanging investment in human capital in the name of cutting long-term deficits seems extremely counterproductive. Oliver’s program was getting solid, empirically verified results, so it’s sad to see it go.