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A Half-Baked Idea

The latest example of rules run amok comes from a section of the 2010 “Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act” that controls what food can be sold in schools. While the law’s goal—reducing childhood obesity—is noble, its approach is ham-handed, lumping traditional vending machine fare together with bake sales. As the Wall Street Journal explains:

At Chapman School in Nebraska, resourceful students hawk pizza and cookie dough to raise money for school supplies, field trips and an eighth-grade excursion to Washington. They peddle chocolate bars to help fund the yearbook.

But the sales won't be so sweet starting this fall. Campus bake sales—a mainstay of school fundraisers—are going on a diet. A federal law that aims to curb childhood obesity means that, in dozens of states, bake sales must adhere to nutrition requirements that could replace cupcakes and brownies with fruit cups and granola bars.

In an editorial criticizing this aspect of the law, the Santa Cruz Sentinel and Monterey County Herald quote Philip Howard’s The Rule of Nobody:

The rules governing what can be served and what can't be served are so convoluted as to be incomprehensible. Welcome to governing in 2014, when complex written rules are taking precedence over common sense in trying to solve complex health problems. In his new book, ‘The Rule of Nobody,’ writer Philip K. Howard explains it this way: ‘Rules have replaced leadership in America. Bureaucracy, regulation and outmoded law tie our hands and confine policy choices. Nobody asks, 'What's the right thing to do here?' Instead, they wonder 'What does the rule book say?'’

The editorial goes on to make a case for more flexible rules around school nutrition:

Childhood obesity is one issue that's crying out for leadership. Instead of putting the rule book in charge, why not empower schools and school districts to figure out best practices on their own? Childhood obesity is not a one-size-fits-all issue, and enforcing a law substituting grapes for a Snickers bar isn't going to miraculously cure the problem.

This isn’t the first time overzealous laws and regulations have stood in the way of getting food to the hungry, whether schoolchildren via bake sales or the homeless via soup kitchens. Public health is a legitimate concern—but that goal can sometimes be undermined, not promoted, by rules that bar homemade food from being prepared and served.