The first lady has spent the past eight years championing anti-obesity initiatives, pushing an aggressive policy and public-outreach agenda that has played a part in changing how millions of Americans, particularly schoolchildren, eat. In a 2010 speech announcing her signature program, Let’s Move!, Obama described her goal as nothing less than “solving the problem of childhood obesity in a generation.”
Experts say her policies have contributed to several positive trends, including the overall obesity rate among young people leveling off in recent years. Children’s diets also have improved measurably, a recent Brown University study found, particularly when it comes to eating more whole grains, seafood, dairy and fruit.
But now that Trump will soon take power — Trump of the deep-fried taco bowl and 20-ounce Porterhouse fame — lobbyists, activists and outgoing administration officials fear that the president-elect and his, as well as his advisers’, skepticism of government regulation will uproot the healthy food movement Obama has championed.
At stake is not only her personal legacy, experts say, but efforts to reverse the nation's obesity epidemic.
“The Obama administration made a valiant effort to make progress,” said Marion Nestle, a prominent food policy activist and academic. “But there isn’t anything [Trump] couldn’t undo, if he wanted.”
Advocates fear that three achievements could be on the chopping block: rules that require chain restaurants to put calorie counts on menus, stricter nutrition standards for school lunches, and an update to the nutrition labels that appear on packaged foods.
All three were championed by the first lady and enacted by Democratic majorities in Congress. School lunch changes also had early bipartisan support, passing unanimously in the Senate.
In the years since, however, both congressional Republicans and industry groups have come to see the regulations as overly strict or wasteful. When Republicans won control of the House in 2010, and the Senate four years later, opposition to the first lady’s nutrition agenda became more vocal.
The fight for school lunch
The most visible piece of Obama’s agenda is school lunch reform, which affects the meals of 31 million children. The first lady began lobbying for better school nutrition standards shortly after her husband took office, seizing on the fact that the law governing the national school lunch program came up for renewal in 2010. With her urging, the new law — dubbed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act — required that the lunch program revise its nutritional guidelines for the first time in 15 years.
“When we talk about raising a healthier generation, this is what we mean,” Obama said in May. “And it’s happening before our very eyes … They’re developing a set of habits and preferences that will set them on a healthy path for the rest of their lives.”
While the measure was popular when it passed, sentiment shifted as the Agriculture Department began to release concrete requirements. The School Nutrition Association, a powerful industry group which had been an important supporter of the legislation, reversed course over concerns that the new standards were expensive and unpopular with students.
“It’s not up to the government to dictate the personal dietary choices of individuals,” said Daren Bakst, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. “We want these decisions made at the local level. That’s the pro-parent position.”
In Congress, detractors like Rep. Robert B. Aderholt (R-Ala.) and Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) have introduced legislation and taken other steps to undermine or delay some of the law’s main provisions, including limits on refined grains and sodium. When the child nutrition bill came up for reauthorization in 2015, House Republicans attempted to gut both the nutritional standards and a measure intended to increase program access in low-income schools.
Negotiations fell through earlier this month, which means the issue will be taken up by the next Congress. The new nutritional standards will remain in place until then. While it’s too early to guess at what the next child nutrition bill could look like, Aderholt, one of the staunchest critics of the school lunch law, has said he expects changes. His office declined to specify what those changes would be.
Much of this uncertainty springs from the fact that Trump has never publicly spoken on school lunches or nutrition policy, though plenty of lobbyists and administration officials are scrutinizing the tea leaves behind closed doors. They note that Trump’s agricultural advisory committee includes Aderholt and Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, who reintroduced deep-fryers to that state’s schools.
The man leading his USDA transition team, Joel Leftwich, is a former lobbyist for PepsiCo. Trump just nominated the CEO of Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. to head the Department of Labor.
Trump has said he personally eats fast food several times a week and has extolled the virtues of McDonald’s — though his 2004 book “Think Like a Billionaire” also preached the value of a balanced, minimally processed diet. The Trump transition team did not respond to a request for comment.
Nutrition and menu labels still in play
The same ambiguity surrounds menu-labeling rules, which require chain establishments that serve prepared food to also display those foods’ calorie counts. The first lady’s advisers have been credited with shepherding the little-known requirement, which passed as part of the Affordable Care Act and will go into effect next year.
Multiple studies have found that people consume fewer calories when their menus display calorie counts. But some industry groups, particularly those representing grocery stores, theaters and other food-service establishments that aren’t strictly “restaurants,” are unhappy the rules apply to them. Their defenders in government have argued that the requirements are a financial burden.
They could potentially see relief under the Trump administration, given that he and Tom Price, his nominee for secretary of health and human services, favor repealing the Affordable Care Act. Price has also said government should play a smaller role in regulating industry.
That stance could also affect other nutritional regulations under the purview of the Food and Drug Administration, a department of HHS — namely, the new nutrition facts labels, which the first lady debuted, to great fanfare, last summer. Debra Eschmeyer, the executive director of Let's Move!, described the update as one of Obama's “monumental achievements.”
The labels emphasize calories and serving size and display “added sugars” for the first time, emphasizing the sweeteners and syrups that manufacturers add to many products during processing. They are unpopular with the sugar industry and aren’t slated to go live until July 2018. Congress could delay them through next year’s budget bill if they’re not already delayed or weakened by the agency.
“We are on high alert for attempts to remove ‘added sugars’ or delay the update to the Nutrition Facts,” said Margo Wootan, the director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
The future of child obesity
Advocates fear any reversal of the first lady’s nutrition policies could harm the fight against the obesity epidemic. Progress on this front has already been slow: In 2013, 38 percent of American adults were obese, as were 17 percent of children — a figure that has not changed substantially over the past decade.
Certain groups of children have seen progress, however, particularly children under five years old and children under five who participate in nutrition assistance programs. Miriam Nelson, a public health researcher who has advised several administrations on child obesity and nutrition, said those gains could be erased if Trump rolled back programs like healthy school lunches.
“We can only speculate, but I’m very worried,” Nelson said. “The trend down is not real steep. It’s a fragile shift.”
Still, there’s some reason for hope among nutrition experts.
Wootan points out that many of Obama’s changes have been popular with voters: a 2015 poll by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation found that 86 percent support the stricter school-lunch standards, while a 2015 Associated Press poll found that more than half of Americans support menu calorie labels.
Eschmeyer, of Let's Move!, said she felt “optimistic” that public sentiment on obesity, as well as momentum in the marketplace, would ensure the first lady's revisions remained for the long-term.
“The takeaway is that we've seen tremendous conversation and cultural shift,” she said. “I'm really excited for the future of food in this space.”
Wootan and other experts say we’ll know more about the fate of Michelle Obama’s legacy in a matter of weeks. Trump’s pick for USDA secretary will reveal a great deal about where he stands.
But Nestle says she’ll be watching for a smaller, more symbolic indicator: what happens to Obama’s White House garden. The first lady recently called the garden “a symbol of the hopes that we all hold of growing a healthier nation for our children.”
“His removing that would be equivalent to Reagan removing the solar panels installed under the Carter administration,” Nestle said. “It has enormous symbolic value. And that would be sad.”