School lunch programs are back in the headlines, following a House Republican–led proposal to let some public schools opt out of new nutrition guidelines and a response Tuesday from First Lady Michelle Obama.
"This is unacceptable," Obama said during a White House roundtable discussion. "It's unacceptable to me not just as first lady, but also as a mother."
Obama accused Republicans of targeting the lunch standards for political gain, according to The Hill:
"The last thing we can afford to do right now is play politics with our kids' health," she said. "Now is not the time to roll back everything we have worked for."
The "unusually confrontational remarks were a departure for a first lady," writes the Los Angeles Times' Kathleen Hennessey:
As the nation's best-known healthy-eating advocate, Obama has typically emphasized partnerships and pledges with the makers of gummy fruit snacks and sweetened cereals, aiming for incremental changes in their products and increased marketing of healthier options.
The new lunch program rules, which took effect in 2012, aren't terribly radical. They require student food options to contain less sodium, more whole grains, and more fruits and vegetables.
Critics, however, say some school districts are losing too much lunch money to make meeting these new requirements financially feasible, at least right away. They advocate greater flexibility for schools trying to make incremental improvements.
"I am hearing this from the school administrators as well as the students themselves," says Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), chair of the House Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration and Related Agencies. "Less kids are buying school lunches and that undermines the intention to increase healthy eating in schools. This jeopardizes the economics of the program in many counties."
On Thursday, the House Appropriations Committee is expected to approve a 2015 spending bill for the Agriculture Department. It includes a mandate that the agency waive nutrition standards for school districts that can show they've lost money due to the changes over a six month period.
"I guess the waiver is a step in the right direction," Gitta Grether-Sweeney, nutrition-services director for Portland Public Schools in Oregon, tells the Wall Street Journal:
"What I'd rather see is a slower implementation of these regulations."
Ms. Grether-Sweeney, a registered dietitian, said that new fruit and vegetable requirements increased her expenses for produce by 31% to about $1.1 million in school year 2012-2013 from about $860,000 in 2011-2012. The difference doesn't account for price inflation.
"The students leave the serving line, go to the garbage line and then throw away their fruit or vegetable before they sit down to eat," she said. "It's sad."
Other school administrators and dietitians echoed Grether-Sweeney's sentiments. Even the School Nutrition Association—a professional group for the cafeteria crowd that originally supported the lunch program changes—recently voted in favor of allowing school districts some more flexibility.
"We're out here on the front lines trying to implement the standards," said Leah Schmidt, the association's president and director of nutrition services for the Hickman Mills C-1 School District in Kansas City, Mo. "We really feel like we need to slow down and catch our breath. We can offer healthy food all day long, but if students don't eat it, it's not helpful to anyone."
More temporal flexibility is all the waiver is meant to establish, proponents insist. Rep. Aderholt has stressed that the temporary waiver was simply meant to throw schools "a lifeline."
In an interview with The Washington Post, Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) insists that he wants to combat childhood obesity as much as the next guy. "But I've heard from school districts, superintendents, and they are asking for flexibility," Davis says. "This top-down approach from Washington isn't working."