Unintended Consequences: Cafeteria Food Edition

About six years ago, the First Lady Michelle Obama, started what sounded like a good program to help improve the health of the nation’s youth.

A key tenet of the program was to serve more healthy food in school cafeterias.

In this article from 2011, Megan McArdle wrote about some of the unintended consequences that ensued from such a well-meaning program. She also expounded on this in her book, The Up Side of Down.

It turns out that healthier foods have shorter shelf lives and are tougher to prepare to be consistently taste good enough to eat. These are just two unintended consequences.

There are more.

Food waste increased substantially as kids threw away more of this healthy, but not good tasting food.

In some cases, health was put more at risk as some of the healthy foods, with shorter shelf lives, were sold well beyond their expiration date. As McArdle wrote:

I think one anecdote in the article is particularly telling.  People complained that salads dated October 7th were served on the 17th–and the district responded by first, pointing out that that was the “best served by” date, not the date when the food actually went bad; and second, removing the labels because they were “confusing”.  Now, as anyone who has forgotten to eat a bag of lettuce knows, while it may not actually be rotten after 10 days, it probably doesn’t look much like something you’d eat voluntarily.  This is not something that you can change by stamping a different “sell by” date on the container.  If that were my choice, I too would come to school with a backup bag of Cheetos.

It’s good to keep in mind that even something seemingly as well-meaning and simple as ‘serve healthy food’ has unintended consequences and humans, being the autonomous and creativity creatures that we are, will find ways around it.

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