First ladies aren't normally given to sharp rebukes of Congress, but we can't blame Michelle Obama for being a bit peeved at the efforts of some on Capital Hill to roll back school nutrition standards. At the request of certain special interest groups, House Republicans are backing a provision in the 2015 funding bill that would give schools the option of waiving the standards for one year in districts where the lunch program is losing money.
It should come as no surprise that some in the food industry — particularly those who make such questionable menu items as mini-pizzas loaded with high-fat cheese or deep-fried chicken nuggets that no longer make the nutritional cut — are balking at the standards. Nor is it terribly shocking that certain school districts say reducing sodium in lunches or introducing more whole grains and fresh fruit is challenging.
Ms. Obama's recent observation that it's "unacceptable" that certain lawmakers are playing politics with "our children's health" is right on point. It should be regarded as unacceptable to all parents who have kids in public schools and care about keeping them healthy. Yet the House Appropriations Committee did just that on Thursday, voting on party lines to adopt the waiver, and the full House is expected to eventually go along with that poor choice leaving conferees from the Senate (their version of the bill seeking only to study the issue) as good nutrition's next line of defense.
This isn't the first time Republicans have sided with big companies like Coca-Cola or Tyson Food Service (both members of a misleadingly titled industry lobbying group, the School Nutrition Association, that has spearhead the effort) over the health of children. They've regularly ridiculed Ms. Obama for daring to tackle childhood obesity early in her husband's first term despite signs that the first lady's campaign is making progress.
This much is clear. The effort to make school lunches healthier has not been easy, and complaints that more lunches have ended up in the trash can after the nutritional standards were raised in 2010 are probably true. But if children were ceded control of the lunchroom menu, it would probably look more like a fast-food outlet or even a candy store. That some lunch ladies didn't immediately know how to adapt to the guidelines (or perhaps produced less than tasty options) is no reason to throw out nutritional standards along with all those ill-conceived quinoa-and-beet salads.
Yes, schools nationwide sold fewer lunches in 2012 and 2013, but experts say most are adapting quite well to the federal mandate. Does a parent take the broccoli, peas or apples off the dinner table when the 7-year-old prefers French fries? No, you may look for ways to make fresh, healthy ingredients more appealing, but you stand firmly behind good nutrition. That's what raising children is all about — not only offering them the best possible options to succeed in life but also not caving in to their misguided protests.
Childhood obesity is nothing to be snickering about. In the U.S., the rates of obesity have more than quadrupled in adolescents during the last 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That has raised their risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease and diabetes. Experts say the best remedy is prevention — eating healthy and exercising, options that ought to be available to all students in all schools.
Does imposing a federal standard smack of nanny-ism? Perhaps this is one case where a national nanny — a mommy-in-chief if you will — doing a little helpful nagging is absolutely called for. Ms. Obama has filled this role well, not only in endorsing exercise and better school lunches but in seeking to remove sugary sodas and candy from school vending machines and educating the public about the health risks of obesity. Those efforts may even be yielding some early fruit — a recent study suggests a 43 percent decline in obesity rates among 2- to 5-year-old children during the last decade.
For a party that claims to care about health care costs, Republicans seem remarkably uninterested in the "apple a day" that can keep children out of the doctor's office. No child is forced to buy a school lunch, but those who do ought to be offered a healthy meal and not just high-fat, high-salt, high-calorie (and perhaps highly profitable to some vendor) fare. We shouldn't let school districts opt out of nutritional standards just because they're inconvenient any more then we'd expect them to stop teaching algebra because it's hard.
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