Students at Fairfax County’s Parklawn Elementary School had a couple of A-list lunchtime guests Wednesday: first lady Michelle Obama (who stopped by to munch turkey tacos and announce new federal regulations meant to boost school-lunch nutrition) and celebrity chef Rachael Ray (who made the tacos).
Improving school lunches has been a key part of the first lady’s effort to fight childhood obesity, and the new rules amount to the most sweeping school-lunch changes in 15 years. At a pre-lunch press conference in Parklawn’s library Wednesday, Obama gave credit to parents who have led the push for more wholesome, nutritious school meals.
“This movement to improve the food in our schools is happening in large part because of all of you,” Obama said. “It’s happening because you all stood up, it’s happening because you all spoke out and you asked for something better for our kids.”
U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Spanish chef Jose Andres were also on hand to announce the new rules, which reduce salt and fat and require more fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
Political wrangling over the rules mean that there won’t be limits on serving french fries at school, as Obama had hoped. But that didn’t seem to damper excitement among health-food advocates.
“It’s a great day,” said Jessica Donze Black, director of the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project, who called the standards a “grand improvement” over the previous set of rules.
After delivering her remarks to a relatively sedate crowd of 50 adults, Obama entered the Parklawn cafeteria to a standing, squealing ovation from more than 200 kids, many of them waving miniature American flags. Then the first lady went to the head of the lunch line and, pink tray in hand, filed through the kitchen to pick up her meal.
On the menu: Those turkey tacos (with cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, salsa, Mexican brown rice and whole grain flat bread); black bean and corn salad; and mixed fresh fruit.
Obama made conversation with kids behind her as they all went through the line, asking them about their favorite fruit and favorite color of rice.
“I love brown rice!” she said. “That’s all we eat at home.”
After picking up her kid-sized bowl of corn salad (”This is the best part -- veggies!”), she reached the end of the line and was confronted with a cash register. The girl behind her in line told her she needed a “lunch number” to pay for her meal.
“I don’t have a lunch number,” FLOTUS said.
She was allowed to eat anyway and proceeded out of the kitchen with her young helpers, who showed her where to get a fork and a carton of milk. She sat down at a long rectangular table of 16 kids and their teacher, and proceeded to dig into her meal.
Penny McConnell, head of Fairfax’s school meals program, said the new regulations will change little in county schools, which already go above and beyond minimum federal requirements. Many Fairfax schools, including Parklawn -- where about 60 percent of student qualify for free and reduced-price meals -- have won federal recognition for exceeding nutrition and fitness requirements.
But parent activists have been pushing McConnell and other school officials to consider adopting even more stringent requirements, eliminating preservatives, additives and artificial ingredients. McConnell said Wednesday that she wouldn’t make such a move until “that becomes a federal regulation, and the FDA and USDA and Institute of Medicine say that is not permissible.”
School board member Pat Hynes (Hunter Mill), who was at Parklawn for Wednesday’s event, said she understands that it’s difficult for the 177,000-student school system to make substantial changes to its meals program. But she believes there is room to improve.
It’s great that schools are offering more fruits and vegetables, Hynes said, but they also sell ice cream and cookies. And kids can choose cinnamon buns for breakfast.
“It may have whole wheat flour, but the message we’re sending is that a sticky bun is a good breakfast,” she said. ““Every choice in that cafeteria should be a healthy one.”