First lady Michelle Obama is taking on Congress after Republican legislators announced a bill last week that would allow some schools to waive participation in the school lunch program known the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The act, which required school lunches to contain less sugar, sodium and fat, and more vegetables, fruits and whole grains, was a major achievement as the first update in decades to rules designed to make school meals more nutritious.
The new standards championed by the first lady have been unpopular with both schools and kids, resulting in over 1 million children opting out of school meals, increased waste as students throw away the required fruits and vegetables, higher meal costs and strange food pairings as schools try to comply with complicated rules. Students have been buying food off-campus or hitting the vending machines to avoid the healthy school lunches, which have featured such odd menu combinations such as cheese sticks with shrimp to meet the daily meat requirement, or crackers and croutons with salad in order to meet grain requirements. Some School Food Authorities (SFAa) have actually added unhealthy food to their menus, such as potato chips or pudding, in order to meet the rules.
The first lady’s campaign for healthier school lunches is part of her attempts to reduce the epidemic of childhood obesity in the U.S. Congress is presently gridlocked over a number of education issues, including a bill coming up before the House now that would allow schools to apply for waivers that would let them skip the healthy school lunch program. Ms. Obama wrote an op-ed for the New York Times last Wednesday that cited Congress’ efforts to “lower nutrition standards in our schools.” She reminded readers of previous rulings by Congress on government nutrition programs, such as the 2011 decision that tomato sauce on pizza counted as a serving of vegetables.
Ms. Obama, who enjoys at 69 percent approval rating compared to a rating in the 40s for the President, is not the only first lady involved in lobbying, although she is the first to take on Congress over school lunches. Hillary Clinton lobbied for changes in health care, Roslyn Carter for mental health, Nancy Reagan against drugs and Betty Ford on breast cancer. Even Martha Washington got involved, lobbying Congress on behalf of revolutionary war veterans.
The School Nutrition Association (SNA) is an industry-backed group representing school cafeteria workers that originally supported the standards. They have now turned against them because school districts are losing money on the healthier lunches and students will not eat them. Diana Pratt-Heavner, an SNA spokeswoman, asks how the standards can be called a success when they drive students away from the program.
Waste is cited as a challenge by 48 out of 50 states. The General Accounting Office (GAO) conducted a survey of nutrition directors that included visits to 17 schools nationwide. In each school students expressed dislike for the foods required to meet the standards. In the GAO lunch period observations they saw many students throwing away some or all of their vegetables and fruit. They also noted low morale for cafeteria workers, who saw food thrown in the trash that they had taken extra time and effort to prepare.
Lunchroom costs are also rising as 31 percent of SFA’s report the need for new equipment, such as new ladles and spoons to match new portion size requirements. The increase in lunch prices has caused kids to feel they are being asked to pay more for less food.
The House bill that would give districts the chance to apply for waivers allowing them to skip the healthy lunch requirements was authored by Republican Rep. Robert Aderholt of Alabama. He said that the lunch rules came too fast and go too far for school districts to handle.
A House vote on the healthy school lunch bill is expected after the July Fourth break. As Ms. Obama aggressively takes on Congress over the school lunch program she previously lobbied quietly for, she said she would “fight until the bitter end” to make sure schools offer every child in the country the best nutrition they can have. The Senate’s version of the bill does not include the one-year waiver, and the White House is threatening to veto the House bill.
By Beth A. Balen