Michelle Obama Battles Over School Lunch Nutrition Standards
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The Fiscal Times
June 19, 2014

The Obama administration’s effort to combat obesity is drawing some unfavorable scrutiny from conservative Republicans, a large number of school districts across the country, and lobbyists for food companies that sell frozen pizzas, French fries and other prepared food for schools.  

First Lady Michelle Obama, who has mounted a high-profile campaign promoting healthy, active lifestyles and eliminating childhood obesity, has sparked controversy over how large a role the government should play. 

Related: Budget Busting U.S. Obesity Costs Climb Past $300 Billion a Year 

At issue is her latest campaign to get schools to serve healthy lunches to schoolchildren. The effort is part of a law passed in 2010 that sets nutrition benchmarks for public schools. However, a wave of GOP lawmakers are pushing a measure that would exempt many schools from the new standards – which  among other things require that school lunches include more fresh fruits, whole  grains and vegetables.

The new meal standards are particularly important for the 28 million low-income children who depend on school meals for the bulk of their daily nutrition, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. More than 90 percent of schools have embraced the new standards, according the Agriculture Department.

However, critics complain that many students across the country are resisting – and even dumping -- the new, healthier fare in favor of more popular junk food like pizza and French fries. They say that schools are simply wasting money they can’t afford trying to force young people to eat healthier meals.

“We can’t force students to eat something they don’t want,”   Lyman Graham, food service director for consolidated schools near Roswell, N.M., told The Washington Post recently. “Many families in the Southwest will not accept whole-grain tortillas.”

The House Appropriations Committee approved an Agriculture Department spending bill late last month that would waive many of the new meal standards in a substantial number of school districts across the country, provided those districts could show a net loss in its food service program for a six-month period. The Senate is considering companion legislation that would also undercut reforms aimed at improving children’s nutrition and combatting childhood obesity.

Related: U.S. Obesity Rate Hits a Costly New High

On Wednesday, Michelle Obama invited a group of health and science reporters to the White House where she vowed again to fight attempts to delay enforcement of the school lunch nutrition standards, The Washington Post reported.  “I find myself surprised that we’re here because just a few years ago, everybody was around the table celebrating this victory, that school nutrition standards had been improved for the first time in 30 years. And everyone was on board.”\

She acknowledged that it has been a considerable challenge to wean high school students off of junk food laced with high levels of fat and sodium, especially among older students. “But what we did not expect was for the grown-ups to go along with them and say ‘well this is too hard, it costs too much money,” she said. “So let’s just stop’.”

The drive for temporary waivers to the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act that was signed into law by President Obama has drawn strong support from Republican lawmakers and the School Nutrition Association, a major lobbying group which operates in concert with food companies that supply breakfast and lunch meals to schools, the Post reported. Many Democratic lawmakers and public health organizations and advocates have lined up behind Obama to oppose the waivers.

As The Post points out, many of the lawmakers attempting to gut the nutrition standards come from a region dubbed the "diabetes belt" by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention because of the rampant rate of obesity there.

 “A dozen of these Republican lawmakers represent states with the dubious distinction of having rates of overweight and obese children among the 10 highest in the nation,” Slate reported. “Among the worst offenders, according to the 2011 National Survey of Children's Health: Alabama, home to Rep. Robert Aderholt, the subcommittee chairman in charge of setting funding levels for school nutrition programs and the chief architect of the waiver provision; Kentucky, represented by Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers; and Texas, which boasts a trio of its own powerful Appropriations subcommittee chairmen.”

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Washington Editor and D.C. Bureau Chief Eric Pianin is a veteran journalist who has covered the federal government, congressional budget and tax issues, and national politics. He spent over 25 years at The Washington Post.