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At White House Event, First Lady Vows to Fight Congress Over Healthy School Lunches

whitehouseschoollunchesFirst lady Michelle Obama showed yesterday that she’s not going to back down in her fight for healthy school lunches, despite vocal opposition from Republicans and lobbyists pushing to relax the nutritional requirements.

“There’s a lot of money involved in feeding our kids at school,”  Obama said, surrounded by schoolchildren from all 50 states at the third annual “Kids’ State Dinner” in the East Room, where they were honoring the winners of a children’s national recipe contest.

“We are currently spending $10 billion a year on our school lunch program…so it’s not surprising that certain interests are resisting change and trying to take us back to the old way of doing business, because for them there’s a lot of money on the line.”

She pointedly noted the “grown-ups” in Congress who are “trying to undo some of the progress we’ve made.”

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.

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.

The first lady said last month that she will “fight until the bitter end to make sure that every kid in this country continues to have the best nutrition that they can have in our schools.”

Yesterday’s event, organized by the Let’s Move! campaign, the recipe website Epicurious and the departments of Education and Agriculture, was attended by the 54 winners of the Healthy Lunchtime Challenge, which promotes kid-designed lunches that meet federal dietary guidelines.

The winning dishes were selected from more than 1,500 entries and had to stick to the USDA school lunch standards, which include fruits and veggies, low-fat dairy products, whole grains and lean proteins. The entrants were ages 8 to 12. Winners had clever names such as “Barack-oli and Mich-room Obama-lette” by 11-year-old Elena Hirsch of Michigan and “Mo-Rockin’ Meatless Monday Special” by 8-year-old Lily Vinch of Guam.

President Obama even popped into the lunch and talked about the importance of healthy eating..

“Each of us have our weaknesses,” the president said, pointing out that for Malia it’s ice cream, for Sasha it’s sushi, and for the first lady it’s French fries.

“My big thing: chips and guacamole,” he said. “If there’s a good bowl of chips and guacamole, I lose my mind.”

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