The administration, which has made undoing the achievements of its immediate predecessor a common theme in its policymaking, chose former first lady Michelle Obama’s 56th birthday to make the announcement. She was a driver behind the scientifically based standards that were set under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The timing of the new Agriculture Department announcement was just a coincidence, administration officials claimed.
It was also a coincidence back in 1981 when the Reagan administration tried something similar — proposing a set of standards that would have allowed ketchup and pickle relish to be deemed vegetables in school lunches — on the same day that then-first lady Nancy Reagan unveiled a plan to purchase, with private donations, a $209,508 set of china to be used at formal White House dinners. In the ensuing furor, the proposal for the revised standards was quickly withdrawn. Ronald Reagan’s budget director, David A. Stockman, said the Agriculture Department “not only has egg on its face, but ketchup, too."
The Trump administration will soon learn that Americans will not tolerate literally taking food from the mouths of children (or in the Trump administration’s case, replacing it with junk). In early 1995, Newt Gingrich’s Republican House majority moved to turn funding for school lunches and other federally subsidized nutritional programs into a block-grant system, which would have both saved money and allowed the states to set their own standards. This was one of the GOP’s first big blunders, quickly seized upon by then-President Bill Clinton. “You know, an old conservative adage used to be ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’” Clinton said. “Here’s a program that isn’t broke, that’s done a world of good for millions and millions of children of all races and backgrounds.”
There was actually a time when Republicans prided themselves on being champions of better nutrition for children. Richard M. Nixon greatly expanded the federal school lunch program started under Harry S. Truman. “The time has come to end hunger in America,” Nixon said. When Mike Huckabee was governor of Arkansas from 1996 to 2007, he made cutting childhood obesity a signature issue. During his tenure, the state’s public schools took sugary sodas out of their vending machines and replaced them with water, milk and juice. Huckabee also advocated giving food stamps more purchasing power if they were spent on fruits and vegetables.
Back in 2011, when strident figures such as Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh started mocking Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign, Huckabee defended it: “I think we ought to be thanking her.” We still should. This move by the Trump administration, if it is allowed to stand, will be one that parents remember when they go to the polls in November.