Everything you need to know about Michelle Obama’s school food fight

The first lady told a roundtable of nutritionists hosted by the White House that Congress shouldn't "play politics with our kids’ health." (WhiteHouse.gov via YouTube)

 

Visit almost any school cafeteria in the country and here’s what you’ll find — kids complaining about the food and putting the blame squarely on first lady Michelle Obama’s shoulders.

Now, some House Republicans and the School Nutrition Association (SNA), a group that represents 55,000 school nutrition workers, have joined the chorus of complainers, arguing that the new standards that Obama and others have championed are just too expensive for some school districts, so they should be able to opt out.

FLOTUS says no way.

“This is unacceptable,” Obama said at the White House on Tuesday at a gathering of school nutritionists. “It’s unacceptable to me not just as first lady, but also as a mother.”

On Thursday, the House Appropriations Committee is expected to approve language that would give school districts in states that demonstrate a net loss  a blanket one-year waiver from the new nutrition rules, which have been phased in over the past two years, with a new round to begin in the fall.

Here’s everything you need to know about this so-called “food fight”:

Just what are these new standards? Unless you are a parent, cafeteria worker, teacher or a kid, you probably haven’t noticed that school lunches and breakfasts have been undergoing a massive change since 2012.  Remember that tray of greasy pizza, french fries and spoonful of coleslaw-looking stuff that you used to scarf down during lunch?  Well, much of that’s been replaced by something far more healthy, because of a bill called the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act signed by President Obama in 2010. Fried is out.  Baked is in. Wheat and whole-grain breads have replaced Wonder Bread.  And fruits and vegetables are a staple of every meal. (Fruit cocktail dripping in heavy syrup won’t cut it.)

According the USDA, some 90 percent of schools are in compliance with new rules, as outlined in January 2012.  In the fall, there are lower sodium mandates, and the rules expand to food sold outside the cafeteria and inside the cafeteria. The USDA said Wednesday that schools can have a two-year waiver from the requirement that pasta be more than half whole grains. But these latest rules, which include serving 100 percent whole-grain products rather than the current 50 percent requirement, are onerous and potentially budget-busting, some school districts contend. Come September, there will be new guidelines for foods sold outside of the cafeteria in vending machines and at bake sales as well.

On an SNA conference call Wednesday, school officials sounded off:

“Many families in the Southwest will not accept whole grain tortillas. Schools can’t change cultural preferences. And with sky-high produce costs, we simply cannot afford to feed our trash cans. Every penny spent on whole grains and produce needs to go into the mouth of a hungry child.” Lyman Graham, Food Service Director, Roswell,  New Mexico

“In our schools we offer a variety of produce choices each day and are happy that some students choose to take multiple servings. But the older students, especially, know what they want, and some days they simply don’t want a fruit or vegetable with their meals. At about 25 cents a serving, the mandate to serve a fruit or vegetable has us throwing away money and making kids angry with us.” Dolores Sutterfield, Child Nutrition Director, Harrisburg, Arkansas

The SNA calls it “plate waste” — kids just dumping what they don’t want in the garbage — and they also point to declining school lunch and breakfast participation rates. A Government Accountability Office study released in January did find a decline in the number of kids who buy school lunch, yet attributed much of the decline to a drop in the number of students paying full price, a trend that began in 2007, but was especially high in 2012, the year the new rules were implemented.

“Americans throw away a lot of food: We don’t know that it’s any worse at schools,” said Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who backs the new standards.  “There are new standards, so everybody is piling on.”

How did we get here?  Well, you have to all the way back to President Harry Truman and to 1946, when the National School Lunch Act became law and started feeding 7 million schoolchildren.  Much has changed since then, including the cost and scope of the program.  In 1947, the program, administered by the Food and Nutrition Service at the federal level, cost $70 million.  Now it costs about $12 billion a year and provides food for 31 million children across the country.

Truman summed up the dual purpose of the bill:

In the long view, no nation is any healthier than its children or more prosperous than its farmers; and in the National School Lunch Act, the Congress has contributed immeasurably both to the welfare of our farmers and the health of our children.

President George W. Bush, in 2004, signed a bill aimed at promoting healthier school lunches, an effort that gained bipartisan support.  More recently, Michelle Obama has made the bill a centerpiece of her efforts to combat childhood obesity. The administration frequently cites a study that shows a 43 percent decline in obesity rates for children ages 2 to 5 over the past decade, though the years for the study do not overlap with the implementation of the new school nutrition standards.

Where does politics fit in?   Well, it is an election year. And to be sure, schools have historically been politically contested sites.  Arguments about states’ rights and the reach of the federal government have often played out around schools. (See Brown vs. Board of Education, and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) recently saying that nobody would notice if the Department of Education was gone tomorrow.) Some Republicans and conservatives have grumbled that Michelle Obama and the administration meddling in school lunches is yet another example of the “Nanny State” run amok.

“The last thing we can afford to do right now is play politics with our kids’ health,” Michelle Obama said Tuesday. “Now is not the time to roll back everything we have worked for.”  As it stands now, it isn’t likely that there will be any massive rollback in the new regulations.  Rather, the USDA, as it did Wednesday, is likely to tweak the rules, allowing waivers as they see fit and as schools (and students) continue to adjust to the new rules.  But it could be that in some states, this becomes an issue on the campaign trail as some candidates use this food fight as another way to ding the Obama administration as heavy on regulation and soft on local (and parental) control of what kids eat in the school cafeteria.

Nia-Malika Henderson is a political reporter for The Fix.
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