Michelle bites back on school lunches

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First lady Michelle Obama came out swinging on Tuesday against a new House Republican-led attempt to allow some schools to opt out of tougher nutrition standards.

“This is unacceptable,” Obama told a group of school nutritionists gathered at the White House. “It’s unacceptable to me not just as first lady, but also as a mother.”

The first lady accused Republicans of targeting the standards for political gain.

“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.”

At one point during a roundtable discussion, Obama asked, “Why are we even having this conversation?”

The first lady has made fighting childhood obesity her signature issue, launching her Let’s Move! initiative to combat it. But the White House argues a new GOP spending bill would erode new nutrition standards the administration put into place.

The Obama-backed 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act requires schools with lunch programs that are federally subsidized under the National School Lunch Program to adhere to new, stricter nutrition guidelines.

Those rules began to go into effect in 2012, and stronger sodium and whole-grain rules are slated in the coming school years.

Critics of the law, led by the School Nutrition Association, which represents lunch providers, say some struggling districts need more time to adjust and are being hit hard financially by the requirements.

They point to a drop of 1 million students participating in the full-priced National School Lunch option to argue some schools need a waiver.

The House Appropriations Committee on Thursday is expected to approve a 2015 spending bill for the Agriculture Department mandating that it waive nutrition standards for school programs that have lost money over six months.

Agriculture subcommittee Chairman Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) said he put the language in after hearing complaints from “lunch ladies” and that he was not responding to frozen food industry pressure.

“Federal regulations shouldn’t be driving school lunch programs underwater. This language throws them a lifeline,” Aderholt spokesman Brian Rell said Tuesday in response to Obama’s comments.

Another GOP aide said the first lady was incorrect in saying the bill axes the requirements.

“This is not a rollback of the standards. This is simply a temporary waiver to give schools the time and flexibility they need to implement the new guidelines,” the aide said.

In contrast, the Senate Appropriations Committee last week adopted a bipartisan compromise after a negotiation led by Sens. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and John Hoeven (R-N.D.).

Their language would prevent new, more stringent sodium levels from being implemented pending further research and would also require the Agriculture Department to identify products that schools can use in lieu of whole-grain pastas and breads if 100 percent whole-grain products cannot be purchased.

It would also force the department to report to Congress on its plan of technical assistance to help schools struggling to meet the new requirements.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest’s Margo Wootan, who supports the stricter standards, said it is fair to call the House language a “rollback.”

“I think the House provision is way too broad,” she said. “Schools could apply for a waiver from any part of the standards. ... The loss could be of any amount — it could be 50 cents — and the loss could be for any reason.”

Wootan said the Senate approach is much more acceptable, and she believes it is written in a way that will allow science to decide the proper sodium level.

As for the School Nutrition Association (SNA), Wootan pointed out the group’s website doesn’t hide that the food industry is a core part of its membership. Its advisory board includes Pepsi, ConAgra and General Mills, while Domino’s Pizza, Kraft and Mars are listed as patrons.

The association in an email denied industry donors were driving its push to secure a waiver for struggling schools.

“SNA’s policy decisions reflect the needs of our 55,000 members who work to provide healthy offerings and support fiscally sound school meal programs,” said SNA President Leah Schmidt. “As a nonprofit, SNA’s funding primarily comes from membership dues and sponsorships of our national conference. Our annual conference offers members an opportunity to participate in educational sessions and share best practices with colleagues on menu planning, nutrition education initiatives and operations to support efficient, effective programs.”

The resolution of the school lunch battle is likely to come this summer as the House and Senate work on a conference agreement for the 2015 USDA funding bill.

Obama took her active stance against the school lunch rider, after congressional Democrats led by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said they wanted to see her be outspoken.

Her tough talk on Tuesday is another place where the first lady is dipping her toe deeper into policy matters. This month, she spoke out on the kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian girls, first on Instagram and in a weekly radio address.

She also publicly marked the 60th anniversary of the landmark school desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education, wading into the lightning rod issue of race relations.

-This post was updated at 8:20 p.m.