Picture this: a classroom of fourth-graders eagerly competing in a math drill for a simple reward — a little piece of candy.
As a former school administrator, this is a scenario I have enjoyed watching many times. It is a common teaching technique. It is motivational. It is effective. It is fun. And in Texas, as of Aug 1, 2003, it is illegal.
According to the September 2003 edition of Straight Talk, a newsletter published by the Association of Texas Professional Educators, the Texas Department of Agriculture is prohibiting candy from "being sold or given away on school premises." According to the TDA website, the prohibition comes as a result of the government having "classified obesity as a national epidemic" and is intended to "reinforce the United States Department of Agriculture’s effort to improve school nutrition environments."
Candy has been officially placed in a food group the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls "FMNVs" — Foods of Minimal Nutritional Value. If anyone is interested, a complete list of FMNVs, along with government definitions, is available in Appendix B of 7 CFR Part 210 of the Code of Federal Regulations. (For the millions of Americans who don’t know what a jellybean is, for example, the government helpfully defines it as "a mixture of carbohydrates which are combined to form a stable gelatinous system of jelly-like character." Yes, there really are federal employees drawing down a salary to write this stuff.)
The TDA website explains that, "the Texas Department of Agriculture is concerned about the health of all Texans and school children in particular." This is the latest trendy argument used to justify the State’s coercive power to interfere with matters best handled by parents and local schools. If "caring for children" is the new criterion for determining the boundaries of State power, it stands to reason that nothing is potentially off-limits. The State could use the same excuse to ban school bake sales, to deny an overweight child his or her school lunch, or to monitor students’ blood-glucose levels to see if they’d eaten a glazed donut for breakfast.
The TDA website says that "Such food may not be sold or given away on school premises by the school, school or non-school organizations, teachers, parents, or any other person or group during the school day." And they’re not kidding: "The TDA will aggressively enforce and diligently monitor this policy to ensure its compliance." Schools that violate the TDA’s policies will incur financial penalties and may be subject to "a documented corrective action plan ... that will be diligently monitored to ensure continued compliance."
Texas is not alone. At present, 19 states are considering similar laws, according to the Oct. 1 edition of Education Week, a national professional journal. Thankfully, the Michigan Department of Agriculture as yet has adopted no such policies. Dan Wyant, Director of MDA, says he not only doesn’t have the authority to make candy contraband in Michigan schools, he regards such policies as "intrusive."
Whether you agree or disagree on candy in school is not the point. The point is that it is not the role of government in a civil society to order its citizens around — even for their good. Every time government expands its power, it does so at the expense of personal liberty. We’ve refused to listen, and now the State is telling us where we can smoke, when we can talk on cell phones, what kinds of toilets we can put in our homes, and whether we wear seatbelts.
If you follow current events, you know that regulating consumer use of charcoal barbeques, gas lawnmowers and SUVs is just around the corner. As the TDA’s actions indicate, the government’s ability to take away personal freedom is as easy as, well, as taking candy from a child.
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Brian Carpenter is director of leadership development for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute based in Midland, Mich. He is the author of recent essays on school choice and charter school oversight.