First Lady, Congress spar over school lunch rules as controversial bill passes hurdle in House


McClatchy Washington Bureau

The First Lady jumped into the political fray this week to defend new standards for healthy school lunches, a policy she’s promoted as part of her “Let’s Move” campaign against childhood obesity.

In a New York Times op-ed published on Wednesday and a speech on Tuesday, Michelle Obama criticized Republicans for promoting legislation that would exempt schools from the standards.

That bill passed the House Appropriations Committee on Thursday, 31-18.

Republican lawmakers and the School Nutrition Association complain that the new rules passed in 2012 are too costly and restrictive, and that schools are throwing away whole grains, fruits and vegetables because kids won’t eat them.

“We’re just looking for some flexibility from those in Washington to ensure our kids are getting the nourishment they need to be successful,” said the association’s president, Leah Schmidt, in a statement on Thursday. The group represents 55,000 school cafeteria workers.

The bill likely will be taken up for consideration by the full House in the coming weeks.

Obama, who rarely wades into Capitol Hill battles, is taking a high-profile role in this one.

In remarks at a roundtable discussion on school nutrition on Tuesday, she assailed Congress for playing politics with kids’ health. The next day she followed up with the editorial in the Times.

“Remember a few years ago when Congress declared that the sauce on a slice of pizza should count as a vegetable in school lunches? You don’t have to be a nutritionist to know that this doesn’t make much sense,” she wrote in the Times. “Yet we’re seeing the same thing happening again with these new efforts to lower nutrition standards in our schools.”

Obama noted that one in three American children is still overweight or obese, and one in three will develop diabetes in his or her lifetime.

“The bottom line is very simple: As parents, we always put our children’s interests first,” Obama wrote. We wake up every morning and go to bed every night worrying about their well-being and their futures. And when we make decisions about our kids’ health, we rely on doctors and experts who can give us accurate information based on sound science. Our leaders in Washington should do the same.”

The House Republican plan would undercut school nutrition standards that have already been implemented in 90 percent of schools, White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Thursday.

He said the proposal “replaces the judgment of doctors and nutritionists with the opinions of politicians regarding what is healthy for our kids.”

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