First lady Michelle Obama objects to attempts by House Republicans to weaken the new healthier school lunch guidelines. The Republicans maintain that the new standards are too costly, but Obama uncharacteristically raised her political hackles on Tuesday in protest, calling proposed changes “unacceptable.”
Over the past few years, Congress and the Obama administration pushed for more whole grains and nutritional content in school cafeterias. The standards approved by Congress in 2010, set limits on fat, sodium and calorie contents. It also required that unhealthy items on menus be replaced with vegetables, fruits and whole grains. “The last thing we can afford to do is play politics with kids’ health,” FLOTUS commented during a White House meeting with school nutrition officials.
Last week, a Congressional subcommittee approved an agriculture spending bill that contained added language that would allow schools to waive the new lunch standards provided they have a 6-month net loss on their school food programs. The bill’s author, Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., claims he added the language at the request of school food directors. The House Appropriations Committee is expected to approve the bill by month end.
At the White House meeting with Mrs. Obama, the school nutrition directors, who were from both big city and rural areas, related success stories about implementing the healthier standards. They also indicated that they would be disappointed to see any legislative rollbacks.
David Binkle, representing the Los Angeles Unified School District at the meeting, noted, “We’re not just talking about food, we’re talking about education.” He reported that participation in school lunch programs has gone up in his district, as well as test scores and graduation rates.
Acknowledging the Republican concern about schools that are suffering financial losses over lunches that is behind their attempts to weaken the school lunch guidelines, the first lady sought advice on how to help schools that are struggling. She also suggested, taking a swing at Aderholt’s bill, that there should be more focus be on helping out those schools rather than pulling back the improved standards completely. The group also discussed that government and schools can also do more to get students interested in what they are eating.
The standards passed in 2010 were phased in over the last two school years, with more changes coming this fall. The School Nutrition Association (SNA), which represents companies that sell food to schools and school nutrition directors, has been lobbying for the guideline changes. The SNA group’s president said that the school officials invited to the White House gathering were not representative of those with concerns.
The schools wanting changes claim the limits on sodium and the whole grain requirements are particularly challenging. They also report that some kids are throwing away the fruits and vegetables they are required to serve.
The Agriculture Department, which is responsible for administering the rules, has tweaked them somewhat since implementation to address school concerns. For example, they scrapped the protein and grain limits on what kids could eat after students complained about being hungry. Last week, the department announced that it would allow some schools to put off serving the whole grain pastas right after the House subcommittee approved the legislation.
Not all school groups would like to see changes. Like the first lady, the national PTA objects to attempts by lawmakers to weaken the school lunch guidelines and wants to standards to remain intact.
By Dyanne Weiss