The congressional battle to save America's children from the scourge of nutritious school lunches and reinstate the Old Guard of frozen pizza and chicken nuggets is heating up. And since first lady Michelle Obama is now participating, the level of argument should devolve from "school lunch personnel have some concerns about the implementation of new regulations" to "ARGLE BARGLE ELITIST BWWWARRR!" in short order.
As we wrote last week, House Republicans are trying to insert a provision into the latest agriculture spending bill that would grant waivers to schools that can prove they're losing money meeting nutrition standards outlined under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. This measure, which Michelle Obama lobbied heavily for during the 2010 lame-duck session, authorized funding for federal school lunch programs to begin serving more fruits, vegetables and whole-grain pasta and less sodium-saturated frozen fried crap. This didn't go over well with the well-funded sodium-saturated frozen fried crap industry and its army of lobbyists. Now the same shady operators who fought tooth-and-nail over retaining pizza's status as a vegetable are back, trying to keep America's children nice and plump.
At first, the arguments by House Appropriations Committee chair Rep. Hal Rogers and subcommittee chair Rep. Robert Aderholt focused on what they were hearing from "lunch ladies" about the waste stemming from these new provisions. "The problem is, kids are saying 'I don’t want it,' and they go someplace else to get their food," Rogers said. Aderholt, meanwhile, denied that he was hearing from "industry" on this issue. "I don’t know where industry is on this," he said. "I am hearing from lunch ladies I talk to." As we noted, the "lunch ladies" in question are members of the main lobbying group behind this waiver, the School Nutrition Association, which represents school lunch professionals but gets plenty of funding from the enormous corporations that produce food items.
As chef, author and healthy food advocate Ann Cooper writes at U.S. News, the SNA does raise some legitimate concerns about some schools and school districts that are having problems: loss of revenue from decreased participation in school lunch programs, and an increase in the amount of waste from kids who simply throw away their fruits and vegetables. On the other hand, 90 percent of schools are implementing the HHFKA with no problems, and for those that are having trouble, "the solution is to work with the USDA to find ways to offer support and technical assistance to schools that need it, not to relax guidelines." To do otherwise would be a boondoggle (emphasis ours):
The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture just rolled back major steps toward a healthier school lunch. On May 20, during the subcommittee’s markup of the 2015 Agricultural Appropriations Bill, Subcommittee Chair Robert Aderholt revealed a provision that would allow schools to opt out of meeting the U.S. Department of Agriculture's school food requirements and still receive federal reimbursement for meals that fall below federal nutritional standards....
Congressman Sam Farr, the ranking member of the subcommittee, protested the provision, citing concern that school districts would continue to receive federal funds to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables but not be required to buy them. He recognized that meeting the requirements can be challenging, but he said, “We don’t allow kids to opt out of math or opt out of science because it’s tough. Changing the American diet is fundamental to bringing down health care costs.”
Now Michelle Obama is personally getting involved. It is a rare expenditure of political capital on her part. But this is "her bill," and besides, what the hell is this "waiver" business?
In one of the most overtly political speeches during her tenure as First Lady, Obama slammed Republicans on Tuesday for trying to weaken school nutritional standards, one of her key policy achievements.
“This is unacceptable,” Obama said at a White House meeting with school leaders and experts. “It’s unacceptable to me not just as First Lady but also as a mother.
“The stakes couldn’t be higher on this issue,” she said, pointing to obesity statistics in both children and adults. “The last thing we can afford to so right now is play politics with our kids health.”
There are pros and cons to Michelle Obama's involvement here. On the one hand, the first lady's involvement will draw much more attention to what otherwise would have been an obscure House subcommittee appropriations markup spat. On the other, her involvement will almost certainly dumb the debate down from a policy question to one about how Michelle Obama is an elitist hypocrite nanny who ... just ... GRRR!
Look, for example, at the change in tone from Rep. Robert Aderholt, who just last week was basing his argument on pushback from school lunch trade associations. Now that Michelle Obama has gotten involved, he's popping up on Laura Ingraham's wingnut radio show to level ad hominem culture war attacks on the Obama family.
No one brings out the sputtering lunacy quite like Michelle Obama. So, she's got that going in her favor.