Last week, New York City’s Panel for Educational Policy approved a new rule for school bake sales. Home-made treats are no-no, but pre-approved packaged products, the ones that are also in school vending machines, are fine.
The bake sale ban is supposed to reduce childhood obesity. An education bureaucrat explained that homemade goods can’t be allowed because it’s impossible to know their portion size and content. You may add raisins to your banana bread and slice it thin, while I add walnuts and cut it thick.
Hence banana bread, cupcakes and anything else baked at home have been banished; but kids are free to gorge on Kellogg’s Frosted Brown Sugar Cinnamon Pop-Tarts, which come in portion-controlled packages and have known ingredients—in fact a long list of ingredients from high fructose corn syrup to yellow dye #6.
This is a vivid little example of how regulation in general functions and the impact it has in many areas of social life.
One, regulators are almost always influenced by the industry involved and work to its advantage— the NYC schools’ chosen vending operator plans to sell “fund-raising kits” of packaged products.
Two, the cost rises—packaged products cost significantly more than home-made goods. This means you will need more capital to hold a bake sale. Factoring in the greater expense, sales can’t raise as much money and are therefore less worthwhile.
Three, the intervention weakens and often destroys some part of civil society – in this case, the venerable American institution of bake sales – by substituting government control for spontaneous activity.
Four, the regulation likely fails to achieve its stated goal. Evidence is mixed about the effect of portion-controlled food packages. They help limit your consumption only if you stop at one pack. In a study from Arizona State University, 100-calorie snack packs actually boosted eating by one group—people with diet issues. More of them finished off M&M’s in little packs than the equivalent amount in a big package.
If you consider that in recent decades home cooking has become less prevalent as children have become heavier, one would not logically conclude that mom’s cookies are the culprit. Getting rid of the cookies is therefore unlikely to reverse the trend.
Five, the intrusion invariably has bad side effects, which in this case includes making students feel that being at school is like being incarcerated in a maximum-security prison where you have to eat whatever you’re given—an experience probably not conducive to warm feelings toward the school.
But bureaucrats invariably see their impositions on other people as very reasonable. The home baking prohibition is presented as a compromise, the alternative to an earlier total ban on fund-raising food sales, and an exception has been granted for a Parent-Teacher Association event, presumably to make the policy palatable.
When interventions fail and the problem worsens, the standard response is to add more regulation. Next step down the slippery slope, maybe a new rule on what children are allowed to eat at home. Banish all foods other than regulation-size packages of chemical-laced pellets and institute a refrigerator police.