Michelle Obama Fights Cuts To School Lunch Standards

Michelle Obama pushed back yesterday against push-back from some schools, an association of nutritionists and food suppliers, and Congressional Republicans on new school lunch standards authorized by the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. It is rare for a First Lady to get directly involved with congressional politics, several observers point out.

“The last thing that we can afford to do right now is play politics with our kids’ health, especially when we’re finally starting to see some progress on this issue,” Obama told a handpicked group of school officials from “New York, California, Virginia, Maryland, Georgia and Tennessee who attested to the success of the new standards in their school systems,” David S. Joachim reports in the New York Times. “It’s unacceptable to me not just as First Lady, but as a mother,” Obama added.



An agriculture spending bill approved by a House subcommittee last week would allow schools to waive the standards if they have a net loss on school food programs for a six-month period, reports the Associated Press’ Mary Clare Jalonick in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., who wrote the bill, said he was responding to requests from school food directors who have said the rules are too restrictive,” Jalonick writes.

The standards set by the Healthy Hunger-Free Act “ensure that school lunches provide kids with more whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and low-fat dairy products,” reports Lecia Bushak on Medical Daily. “They also aim to reduce the amount of fat, sodium, and sugar present in school lunches and monitor portion sizes.” 

The School Nutrition Association is “leading the charge for peeling back the regulations,” writes Helena Bottemiller Evich on Politico. The group, which represents 55,000 school nutrition workers and companies that supply school food, “has aggressively lobbied lawmakers for more flexibility on the rules.” They claim “that many schools are having a tough time meeting the regulations and more school food is ending up in trash cans.”

“The majority of schools are doing a good job of serving healthy food and presenting it in a way that is attractive and appealing to kids,” counters Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, in a piece by Caroline Porter in the Wall Street Journal. “For those schools not able to do it, we need to help them learn how to do it, not give them a free pass to continue to serve junk food.”

The Agriculture Department (USDA) has said it would allow schools to delay a requirement to serve only whole grains for up to two years if they can “demonstrate that they have had ‘significant challenges’ in preparing whole-grain pasta,” the AP’s Jalonick reports.

Reactions to yesterday’s staged event at Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C., were seasoned in advance by all the predictable arguments from both sides of the debate. 

In an op-ed piece on CNN tellingly headlined “GOP to first lady: Let them eat ... whatever,” Donna Brazille writes: “The proposed waiver appears to be an attempt to buy time so the frozen food industry and agribusinesses can worm their foods into the schools. The provision is opposed by hundreds of nonpartisan, nonprofit nutrition organizations and supported by just a handful of powerful junk food interests.” 

Brazille is a columnist, adjunct professor at Georgetown University, author ofCooking With Grease: Stirring the Pots in Americaandvice chairwoman for voter registration and participation for the Democratic National Committee.

“Holding a roundtable discussion? That’s a joke,” said Cheryl Chumley, a Washington Times news writer and author of Police State USA: How Orwell’s Nightmare is Becoming Our Reality in a piece on WND.com. “We don’t need politicians telling us how to eat. We certainly don’t need the first lady wagging her finger at us, telling us that we don’t know how to properly feed our kids.”

“Some argue that we are creating a ‘nanny state’ and taking away people's freedom of choice to eat what they want. The kids we are talking about don't have a choice, though,” writes Gracie Cavnar, founder of the Recipe for Success Foundation, in the Houston Chronicle. “There are millions of children who live in poverty and rely upon the food they receive during their school hours to survive.”

Besides yesterday’s event, “White House officials will be speaking publicly this week and next about the benefits of the federal dietary standards, calling on members of Congress to lobby for support and organizing scientific and advocacy groups to speak out,” Tom Hamburger reports in the Washington Post. They say that the new standards already have produced “noticeable improvements in children’s health.”

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