The First Lady Is Ready for a Food Fight Over School Lunch

Michelle Obama is taking on the House's efforts to let schools opt out of new nutrition standards.

(Photo: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

May 27, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

The conflicts between Speaker John Boehner’s House of Representatives and President Barack Obama are legion. From Obamacare to immigration to gun control, you’d be hard-pressed to find a major policy issue where the House is not diametrically opposed to the president’s stance. Today, however, another Obama—Michelle—is picking a fight with the House.

A House spending bill released last week would allow schools to opt out of the new nutrition standards that the first lady has promoted through the Let’s Move campaign. The bill would also slash funding for a summer lunch program, cutting the budget from $85 million to $27 million and limiting its focus to rural schools in Appalachia. The unhealthy food policy changes don't end with the cafeteria. White potatoes—no paragon of nutritional value—could be purchased using Women, Infants, and Children vouchers, thanks to lobbying by the industry.

So rather than palling around with Big Bird or cracking jokes with Will Ferrell, Obama is turning to her legal background and is making a strong argument against the House-led effort to curb the changes.

The nutrition guidelines, which were passed in 2010, are helping bring more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains to cafeteria menus and limiting the amount of sodium, fat, and calories students consume. But the move away from pizza and french fries has been met with outrage from students at some schools, leading to protests, while other kids have simply stopped buying school lunch—which is hurting districts' budgets. That, according to House Republicans, is why schools are asking for a waiver. If passed, districts that have lost money over a six-month period due to serving healthier food would be exempted from the standards.

"The last thing we can afford to do right now is play politics with our kids’ health," Obama said to a group of officials from schools where the reforms have been successful. "Rolling things back is not the answer," she added. Her remarks followed an off-the-record conference call with food activists held last week.

In the past, the first lady has been criticized for playing too close to industry, too close to the status quo when it comes to food and nutrition issues. Having come out swinging against the food industry early in her husband’s first term, with the idea of a national soda tax seemingly viable, Obama’s anti–childhood obesity work has increasingly been focused on exercise. A few more jumping jacks aren’t going to fix the policies that keep schools and other youth-focused markets flooded with soda and junk food.

But this time around, Obama has plenty of politicians, activist, and nonprofits on her side, including Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and the American Public Health Association.

“I think this will help strengthen the resolve of Democrats in Congress,” Marion Nestle, who teaches public health at New York University, told The Washington Post. “It will remind them how important this program is to children—and to the administration. I do worry also that it may strengthen the resolve of the opposition.”