Should Michelle Obama Be Blamed for Awful School Lunches?

Students have coined the hashtag #ThanksMichelleObama to highlight their cafeteria woes.

First Lady Michelle Obama (Photo: Kris Connor/Getty Images)

May 7, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

For the past several weeks, kids throughout the country have been holding First Lady Michelle Obama responsible for their yucky school lunches.

Students have coined the hashtag #ThanksMichelleObama to highlight their woes, blaming their lunches on Obama’s new health requirements. The standards include ridding schools of junk food, reauthorizing several child nutrition programs, expanding children’s access to free and reduced-price lunches, and increasing the government’s contribution to lunches by 6 cents a meal—the largest-ever government investment in the programs. Since the Obamas entered the White House in 2008, Michelle Obama’s key issues have been childhood obesity and healthier eating for children, which she has pushed via the Let's Move initiative and the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

One student tweeted a picture of a pathetic-looking lunch of a shriveled burger bun and skim milk, writing, “All we get for lunch today. Thank you Michelle Obama.”

Twitter user @SnarkySerrano said: “Darn you and your crappy school lunch Michelle Obama!” She clarified in another tweet that she didn’t dislike the first lady.

Lara Brown, an associate professor at the Graduate School of Political Management at The George Washington University, has long studied the politicizing of first ladies. “In our social media–saturated and hyper-connected world, students who in the past would have only had private opportunities to discuss their school cafeteria’s deficiencies now have the chance to weigh in publicly—and with pictures,” says Brown. “Identifying First Lady Michelle Obama as the culprit in their story is also likely part of this phenomenon.”

Is Obama really to blame? Sorry, kids, but no. She champions healthier eating, but Congress and the Department of Agriculture approved the standards. Still, Obama is taking the heat, and it’s not the first time a first lady has faced the fire. The backlash against Hillary Clinton in the 1990s over health care reform was brutal, and that was in the era before social media.

In 2010, the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act’s main sponsor, former U.S. Senator Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, pushed for healthier lunches and smaller portions as part of the National School Lunch Program, which is intended to promote the health and well-being of schoolchildren.

According to the Government Accountability Office, it served “an estimated 31.6 million children in fiscal year 2012, supported in part through federal subsidies and commodities totaling $11.6 billion.”

The new standards have been slowly implemented over the last two years and will continue into 2015. In one change, pasta and other grain products, including rolls, biscuits, pizza crust, and tortillas, must be whole grain. Now there’s a growing movement, thanks to the anti-Obama tweets and school administrators, to slow or even halt the changes.

Because the changes haven’t been easy on schools, last month the Government Accountability Office released an audit of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act nutrition standards. It reported that 48 of 50 states faced challenges complying with the new standards, including issues such as having higher food costs and difficulties with menu planning. More important, the audit reported that many kids disliked what was served, such as skim milk, whole-grain breads, and nonfat strawberry- and chocolate-flavored drinks. Students complained about smaller portions and the fact that some schools stopped offering the ever-popular peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Implementing any new government policy comes with headaches. Last year, some Kentucky students even said the new food tasted like vomit.

Earlier this year, the School Nutrition Association asked Congress and the USDA to only require that 50 percent of foods be whole-grain rich, to suspend the sodium requirements that call for less salt in cafeteria meals by 2017, and to stop requiring students to take a fruit or vegetable. But the Center for Science in the Public Interest says that any changes put the new program in jeopardy and could gut it.

Brown says the attack on Obama is political and takes away from the real issue: kids eating healthier.

“Unfortunately, few young people are likely to respond to Obama’s message on healthy eating, and her efforts to ensure that schools provide access to nutritious food are not likely to be appreciated,” she says. “In short, she’s a visible target, and it’s easy to pin the blame on her—when really, the problem is that few children like or, when given the option, will choose healthy foods.”

This article was created as part of the social action campaign for the documentary TEACH, produced by TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates.