Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the administration will seek changes when Congress overhauls the Childhood Nutrition Act. It is a worthy goal to say the least. However, there is a serious constitutional question over the federal government’s increasing role in dictating specific policies in local school systems. Often Congress conditions federal funds on states complying with such guidelines. The use of such conditions has long raised federalism concerns, though the courts have largely upheld such conditions (as opposed to direct legislative bans).
Obviously, states should not have to be told by the federal government to rid our schools of such junk food. It is beyond me how educators would choose small vendor fees over student health. However, states’ rights advocates complain that Congress has found a way around federalism protections by collecting more taxes than the federal government requires in order to return the money to the states with such mandates or conditions. There may be good reasons to consider the federalization of the entire school system to guarantee uniformity and excellence. However, that is not the system that we have. Schools (with police powers) are the touchstone of federalism principles. This could prove an interesting fight over not the merits but the means of the federal plan.
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