February 15, 2012 columns

Private Lives and Public Education

Kuznicki uses the example of school lunch restrictions to detail how difficult it is for public officials to act in the public good.

Since this story was posted, it has come to our attention that many of the facts of the incident were incorrectly reported. Further investigation seems to show that the child did not have her lunch taken away and that the mother is unlikely to be billed for the additional food provided. Problems remain, in the author’s judgment, in that the mother’s wishes were clearly not respected. Interested readers should consult this link for more details.

There’s no question that this is outrageous:

A preschooler at West Hoke Elementary School ate three chicken nuggets for lunch Jan. 30 because a state employee told her the lunch her mother packed was not nutritious.

The girl’s turkey and cheese sandwich, banana, potato chips, and apple juice did not meet U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines, according to the interpretation of the agent who was inspecting all lunch boxes…

While the mother and grandmother thought the potato chips and lack of vegetable were what disqualified the lunch, a spokeswoman for the Division of Child Development said that should not have been a problem.

“With a turkey sandwich, that covers your protein, your grain, and if it had cheese on it, that’s the dairy,” said Jani Kozlowski, the fiscal and statutory policy manager for the division. “It sounds like the lunch itself would’ve met all of the standard.” The lunch has to include a fruit or vegetable, but not both, she said.

(h/t: Jacob Sullum.)

It must take a special kind of person to be a lunchbox inspector. If I had to pick that or going on welfare, I think welfare might win.

Still, I can’t help but think that there’s an untold story here. Government agents are often both mean and dumb. That’s a big part of why I’m a libertarian. But why here, and why now? Why pick on this particular girl?

We might never know, and I might be way off-base to speculate. Then again, I might not be. I imagine a feud of some kind between the inspector and the girl’s parents or grandparents. A business deal gone sour. Some unkind words in a bar. A failed affair. (A successful affair.) It’s easy to think of other, more prosaic reasons.

The existence of a private feud certainly wouldn’t excuse the story above. Quite the contrary — public officials are supposed to act in the public good, and not for any private interests of their own.

Our laws make this kind of disinterested, public-spirited state action harder, not easier, when they extend to minor officials wide discretionary powers over individual lives. In a world that will always be full of private resentments, these powers are weapons we shouldn’t leave lying around.  If we do, then consider the probably tens of thousands of schoolchildren with unhealthy lunches in North Carolina, and take a wild guess at which ones get singled out. 

This is a point I’d insist on even if — as could be the case — I’m totally wrong here, and if the lunchbox inspector really was just mean and dumb. Those two can be plenty, but let’s remember corrupt as well.