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First Lady Battles Congress to Keep School Lunches Healthy

U.S. first lady Michelle Obama speaks as she presents the 2014 National Medal for Museum and Library Service at the White House in WashingtonIf you try to mess with children’s health, you’re going to have Michelle Obama to deal with. The first lady is taking the unusual step of going to battle with House Republicans and food industry conglomerates who are attempting to scale back school lunch standards to make it easier to serve items such as french fries in cafeterias.

Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative, encouraging kids to exercise and eat healthier, has been one of the centerpieces of her six years in the White House. A study by the Centers for Disease Control released last August showed the obesity rate among low-income preschoolers declined by small but statistically significant amounts in 19 states and U.S. territories between 2008 and 2011, which some experts partly attributed to the White House campaign.

But now Republicans, supported by the food industry and a powerful lobbying group, are taking on the first lady with a House bill that would allow some districts to opt out of federal mandates passed in 2010 to reduce sodium and increase whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables in school lunches.

With an event at the White House today, the first lady is beginning a campaign-style push to fight the legislation, according to White House officials.

“This is a serious threat to the tremendous progress we have made,” said Sam Kass, a White House assistant chef and nutrition policy adviser, noting recent data showing a decline in obesity rates among children. “This is a critical moment for our kids. We cannot afford to roll back effective programs. We need to be doubling and tripling our efforts.”

But opponents of the White House efforts, which include food-company executives and leaders of the School Nutrition Association, say the new rules have been costly, unwieldy and have led to a waste of food and money as students throw the healthier foods into the garbage.

In effect, they want to let the kids get away with avoiding healthy food and go back to offering them the less healthy alternatives.

In 2011, the frozen-food industry was successful in convincing Congress to amend the rules so pizza with tomato sauce could be counted as a vegetable and would meet the law’s new requirements for balanced nutrition in school cafeterias.

Now the potato lobby is seeking a similar change to stop restrictions on the sale of french fries and other potato products.

Initially the School Nutrition Association was a big advocate for the new rules, but now says “plate waste” is piling up in school cafeterias and local school nutritionists are having difficulty complying with the rules. The SNA disputes the U.S. Agriculture Department’s report that 90 percent of school districts are meeting the new standards.

But SNA’s opponents point out that the group receives funding from firms that supply foods to schools, such as Con-Agra, Domino’s Pizza and Schwan Food Co.

SNA president Leah Schmidt told the Washington Post in an e-mailed statement, “SNA’s request for flexibility does not come from industry or politics. It comes from thousands of school cafeteria professionals who have shown how these restrictive regulations are hindering their efforts to get students to eat healthy school meals.” 

“The administration’s own data shows that student participation is abruptly down in 48 states,” she said. “The White House needs to hear from the majority of school cafeteria professionals who are struggling to make these new standards work.”

But some school nutritionists from around the country say the program is working well, including a nutritionist from a rural Georgia district who says the new lunch standards are popular and may have helped the school football team win a statewide competition.

The first lady’s efforts are also joined by the past president of the School Nutrition Association, Helen Phillips, who worked with the White House to pass the 2010 legislation.

“At a time when families are working hard to live healthy lives, school meals should be supporting families’ efforts, not working against them,” PTA President Otha Thornton wrote to members of Congress.

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