WASHINGTON, Feb. 26, 2014 - Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative turns four this week. And though the program, which aims to combat child obesity, has occasionally been a source of controversy for the Obama administration, two initiatives announced Tuesday indicate she intends to keep moving forward.
Mrs. Obama was joined by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to announce the plans. The first, an expansion of the school breakfast program, will guarantee free breakfast to children who attend schools where at least 40 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-cost meals. The move “ensures that nearly 9 million kids in 22,000 schools start their day with a nutritious breakfast,” Mrs. Obama said.
The second, long sought by health advocates, will impose new marketing guidelines on foods advertised in schools. The proposal would ensure that foods and beverages marketed to children in schools are consistent with the recently-released “Smart Snacks in School” standards. Both initiatives are to be implemented by July 1.
The standards call for grain products to contain at least 50 percent grains by weight and include foods that derive no more than 35 percent of their calories from fat. They also set limits on calories, sugar and sodium and encourage the consumption of dairy, whole grains, protein, fruits and vegetables.
“[A]s part of this effort, we’ll be eliminating advertisements for unhealthy food and beverages in our schools,” Mrs. Obama said. “I think we can all agree that our classrooms should be healthy places where kids are not bombarded with ads for junk food.”
According to USDA, marketers spend about $150 billion per year to market food to children. “We need to send a consistent message in terms of messaging,” Vilsack said. “If you can’t sell it, we don’t want you to market it.”
Both announcements were greeted with enthusiasm by food industry and consumer advocates alike, a universal coalescence behind Michelle Obama in a time when any agreement is rare.
The American Beverage Association (ABA) said it “applauded” the First Lady’s announcement in a statement.
“Mrs. Obama's efforts to continue to strengthen school wellness make sense for the well-being of our schoolchildren,” said ABA President and CEO Susan Neely. “Now, we look forward to working with the USDA on their proposed rule to align food and beverage signage in schools with the new regulations as the logical next step.”
Margo Wooten, with the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), told CNN’s Jake Tapper that “food marketing has a very strong impact on students’ diets and health…And unfortunately most of the marketing in schools is for unhealthy foods…that parents want their kids to be eating less of.”
Still, those who take issue with Mrs. Obama’s larger initiative say her focus on school nutrition is misplaced. Genevieve Wood, who writes for the Heritage Foundation’s Foundry blog and who appeared with Wooten on CNN, echoed conservatives of years’ past as she condemned the federal government’s intrusion into school lunchrooms.
“This is more government saying you don’t know how to pick your own doctors, let’s take care of healthcare for you, you don’t know how to take care of your own children,” Wood said.
Since Congress passed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010, many conservatives have criticized the government, and particularly USDA, for tightening the nutrition guidelines in school lunches in a way that left some kids still hungry at school. Mostly conservative backlash against school lunch standards compelled USDA to make permanent changes to the program last year that allows schools to serve bigger portions of grains and protein.
Still, Michelle Obama’s day ended on a high note. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released new data showing obesity rates among 2-5 year olds dropping from 14 percent in 2003-2004 to just over 8 percent in 2011-2012, a drop of 43 percent.
Sources say the First Lady may have another big announcement later this week, possibly playing a role in unveiling FDA’s revised Nutrition Facts panel.
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