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‘Settled Science’ Behind ‘Smarter Lunchrooms’ Program Gets Busted

Junk Science: Eight years ago, the Obama administration spent millions of dollars pushing schools to get kids to eat healthier. The science behind the effort was rock solid. Or so everyone thought. Sound familiar?




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On Wednesday, the Journal of the American Medical Association announced that it was retracting six articles it had published over the past 13 years. All of them authored by Cornell University nutrition expert and director of the school’s Food and Brand Lab, Brian Wansink. The reason? It no longer could be sure the findings in those studies were valid.

The move was highly unusual, not to mention embarrassing, for JAMA, one of the most prestigious, peer-reviewed medical journals around.

It should also infuriate taxpayers and parents. And it should make everyone more skeptical of claims about “settled science.”

Why? Because Wansink’s research formed the basis of the “Smarter Lunchrooms” program, started in 2010 by the Department of Agriculture under the Obama administration. The program was supposed to get kids to make better choices by taking steps to make healthy foods seem more attractive. All of it was based on supposedly rigorous scientific findings by Wansink and his colleagues.

Over the following years, the USDA spent tens of millions of dollars, and 30,000 schools spent who knows how much of their own money, adopting the Smarter Lunchrooms program. In 2014, the Huffington Post reported that “the Smarter Lunchroom strategies have been so effective that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is now using them as part of its Healthier U.S. Schools Challenge.”

Last year, the USDA declared that the program had proven effective “in a variety of schools across the nation.” It said kids were eating significantly more fruits and vegetables.

Problems Emerge

But last fall, researchers who examined Wansink’s work started to point out inconsistencies, errors, misuse of data, and exaggerated claims in his work. One found about 150 inconsistencies in statistics from four papers.

And a well-conducted study of the effectiveness of this program found that it prompted students to increase overall fruit consumption by the equivalent of a mere bite of an apple.

“For the better half of a decade, American public schools have been part of a grand experiment in ‘choice architecture’ dressed up as simple, practical steps to spur healthy eating. But new research reveals the ‘Smarter Lunchrooms’ program is based largely on junk science,” noted Elizabeth Nolan Brown, who has been following this saga at Reason magazine.

This development comes on top of many others that call into question the validity of scientific findings that the government has been peddling for decades, such as the war on cholesterol.

Keep all this in mind the next time you hear someone pushing expensive government mandates based on “settled science.”

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