For anyone who still gets the printed version of The New York Times, the pretty magazine among all those advertising inserts is worth a read today. It contains a smartly illustrated story entitled, “How School Lunch Became the Latest Political Battleground,” by Nicholas Confessore. It can also be found online here. Confessore, who was part of a team that won a Pulitzer for covering the downfall of short-time New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, writes about national politics, so for him to tackle school lunches as a topic might seem strange. It’s certainly not as sexy as writing about pricey prostitutes. However, Confessore did recently get married, so maybe he is just thinking ahead about what’s going to be served at a local elementary school. Believe it or not, I was actually going to share a few lines about school lunches before word came out about the contents of today’s New York Times magazine. As the school year got underway this year, I began noticing that school lunch news at the local level was falling into about four categories. They are not the ones that get much attention in Washington, D.C. Nevertheless, it’s great that Confessore did his thing because it catches everyone up on the past four years. The illustrations, with dollar values on food items purchased by the National School Lunch Program, fulfill everyone’s needs for factoids. Who knew school lunches cost $112 million just for lettuce or $41.5 million for bananas? Confessore hits around the edges of one or two of the four issues making local news. However, he mostly writes in great detail about the legislative maneuvers, lobbyists, and the battling of beltway power players. We don’t stay awake, but believe me, in the imperial capital they eat that stuff up. The New York Times is one way to follow the school lunch story. The other way, which I prefer, is to read local newspapers that carry school lunch menus. I am the first to admit it is not as sophisticated, but it sure is fresh. And, reading those newspapers, I think that school lunch stories fall into these four basic categories: schools and students voting with their feet, strapped local school lunch budgets, calorie restrictions, and food waste. I also think it’s fair to stay that you can find local stories about these basic four themes on just about any day of the week. Everyone being quoted in these local stories agrees that a change to more nutritional menus for school lunches was overdue. But, at the same time, not since the revolt against the 55-mile-per-hour speed limit has opposition been so strong against a federal mandate as we are seeing against the voluntary National School Lunch Program (NSLP). We know this because people are voting with their feet. We know that schools are dropping out daily and that fewer students participate daily. At least 1 million students are known to have bailed. Chances are that number is much higher. Schools cannot keep kids of a certain age on campus. Try this: Go to a grocery or convenience store nearest to a high school or even middle school shortly before noon. Then just observe. You will first think what I did — that some sort of demonstration or even riot must be underway. In fact, it’s just kids grazing through the shelves because they cannot stomach what their school serves at lunch. It’s also obvious to anyone who wants to look for it that this new demand has created something of a building boom around schools as new food outlets are opened just off campus. This would be a great study subject for someone. The second category of stories about local school lunch programs includes the budget stories. Schools that cannot drop out of the NSLP are going through long sessions with their school boards trying to figure out how to square high prices with few customers. Another interesting study would be to find out how many school districts must now subsidize their school lunch programs with general fund revenue, thereby reducing the money they have available for classroom instruction or that field trip. Districts that really need the NSLP reimbursements to go deep with free lunches and breakfasts for needy students may be the hardest hit by changes and have the fewest options for how they balance their budgets. The need for a national fight against obesity gets mentioned most when the local folks start talking about why the NSLP changes are being imposed. Some kids are fat, and some are skinny. Some are normal or at typically weights for their ages. Mostly what comes up at local schools is why did the NSLP put everyone on the same diet? What is the obsession with portion control and calorie restrictions? Why the one-size-fits-all fixation (with some twists of the dial noted for grade levels)? The new school lunch program has a special burden for kids doing after-school athletics and real work, such as “chores,” in rural America. Lean, mean kids who pump iron after school get the same lunch as the fat ones who waddle home in time for their favorite TV show or to play video games. Finally, stories about food waste connected with the school lunch program boggle the mind. As much 25 to 40 percent of the money spent on school lunches ends up in the garbage, according to various studies. The Los Angeles Unified Schools serves 650,000 meals each day and students throw out food valued at $100,000 a day, or about $18 million a year. And these are the district’s own estimates. Forcing any food on kids that is only going to be thrown away should be against the law. Yet the “force them to take it “ policy is standard operating procedure for the new school lunch program. The policy should be, eat all of what you take without any forced choices. And starting a “Clean Plate Club” might help.