'Let's Move!' Goes Big With Free School Meals Program

Michelle Obama is marking the fourth anniversary of her children's health and nutrition program with two ambitious new initiatives.

Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

After four years of dancing with Big Bird, promoting Walmart, and generally aligning with industry rather than holding it accountable, Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign has found some teeth.

In addition to joking around with Will Ferrell, the first lady marked the children's health and nutrition program’s fourth anniversary by announcing two expansive programs alongside Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack relating to food in public school. The more symbolic of the initiatives is new limits on the marketing of junk food and soda in schools, from advertising materials to soft-drink-sponsored scoreboards at sports facilities.

"The idea here is simple—our classrooms should be healthy places where kids aren't bombarded with ads for junk food," FLOTUS said in a press release. "Because when parents are working hard to teach their kids healthy habits at home, their work shouldn't be undone by unhealthy messages at school."

Some on-campus marketing will be slowly phased out, but there are ways that schools can opt out of the new limitations altogether.

The other, less flashy announcement made today will have a much broader, more sustained impact: universal free school meals for all students at more than 22,000 schools around the United States.

The 9 million children who will receive breakfast and lunch at no cost starting on July 1 attend schools where at least 40 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-cost meals. Among other problems the meal program will eliminate is the social stigma that subsidized breakfast and lunch programs create for low-income students. No longer will these students be ostracized or, worse, forgo free or low-cost meals to not tip off their peers to the poverty they experience at home.

Even New York University nutritionist Marion Nestle, a frequent critic of Obama’s soft handling of the food industry, is impressed with the program. “For this alone, Let’s Move! deserves enthusiastic congratulations,” she wrote on her blog today.

Still, the sizable program doesn’t make up for the food assistance cut experienced by 1 in 4 children last November when Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits were reduced across the board. Ironically, that drop in funding, which sucked $5 billion out of SNAP in 2014 alone, hit when it did because Democrats diverted stimulus money from food stamps to the Healthy Hunger-Free Children Act when that bill passed in 2010. Both of these new programs stem from that piece of legislation.

Despite the November cut and the new farm bill, which cut SNAP even further, providing free meals to students at 22,000 schools will help curb childhood hunger issues. And research suggests that the promise of regular, healthy meals will have a positive academic impact not only on impoverished kids but also on the student body as a whole. 

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