WASHINGTON, May 28, 2014 - First lady Michelle Obama isn’t mincing words with House Appropriations Committee Republicans, calling their attempt to roll back changes to school lunch policy “unacceptable.”

“It's unacceptable to me not just as first lady but also as a mother… The last thing we can afford to do right now is play politics with our kids’ health,” Obama said Tuesday, according to White House pool reports.

The first lady’s comments came in a meeting with national nutrition leaders, USDA Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Janey Thornton and Mrs. Obama’s own staffers, including Let’s Move! Executive Director Sam Kass.

The comments mark something of a departure for the first lady, who had avoided thorny policy issues during the first half of her husband’s presidency. Though she received flak from some for Let’s Move!, her anti-childhood obesity initiative (portrayed as an example of controlling and overeager top-down government), Obama had not significantly waded into the waters of regulations and legislation -– until this year.

This battle sees her pitted against some curious foes – the Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee and current leaders of the School Nutrition Association (SNA). Both groups back legislation released last week that would grant waivers to schools that are losing money under new lunch rules that compel them to serve more whole grains, fruits, vegetables and low-fat options. However, in an interesting twist on Tuesday, several former SNA presidents penned a letter to appropriators, asking them to reject calls for waivers.

“The new USDA regulations are far reaching and have come too fast for local school districts to swallow,” Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said last week. “As such they have upset the economics of the school meals program by driving the cost of the plate up while pushing participation down. This is causing some school systems to abandon the school meals program altogether.”

SNA says it simply wants increased “flexibility” from the USDA’s guidelines, and insists that it supports many of the school lunch requirements, which were changed in 2010 under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act and implemented in 2012.

“Our request for flexibility under the new standards does not come from industry or politics; it comes from thousands of school cafeteria professionals who have shown how these overly prescriptive regulations are hindering their effort to get students to eat healthy school meals,” SNA President Leah Schmidt said Tuesday.

SNA has used USDA data to argue that school lunch participation has plummeted since the department began to implement the new guidelines nationwide. Statistics from the Food and Nutrition Service show that participation did decline by just over 3.5 percent from 2011 to 2013, corroborating numbers from a Government Accountability Office report released earlier this year. But the GAO report also concluded that school lunch program participation is likely to improve over time, as students become accustomed to the kinds of food now served in schools

At the meeting Tuesday, Michelle Obama wondered why SNA was not on her side. “Let me just ask: Why are we even having this conversation?” she said according to the pool report. “Help me understand why, especially given the fact that the School Nutrition Association worked to pass the original changes in the nutrition standards.”

In an interview with food blog Obama Foodorama last week, Kass suggested that SNA’s opposition to the guidelines might have something to do with the food industry players who can no longer distribute their products to schools after USDA implemented the new policy.

During Tuesday’s meeting, however, school nutrition specialists invited to the White House painted a more positive picture of the school lunch program’s rollout.

“In the South, do you not think that taking fried chicken off the menu was dangerous? It was,” said Donna Martin, director of the school nutrition program for the Burke County Board of Education in Georgia. “But we have an herb-baked chicken that our children love. We bake our French fries and we have whole grain, locally-grown grits we do for breakfast that are awesome.”

“Our kids are worth it, y’all. Do not let us go backwards,” Martin said.


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