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Michelle Obama calls out Congress on school lunch nutrition waivers

First Lady Michelle Obama and Rachael Ray talk with students at Eastside and Northside Elementary Schools in Clinton, Miss., Feb. 27, 2013.
First Lady Michelle Obama and Rachael Ray talk with students at Eastside and Northside Elementary Schools in Clinton, Miss., Feb. 27, 2013.
Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson

First Lady Michelle Obama, speaking yesterday at a White House school nutrition roundtable, accused Congress of playing politics with children’s health. At issue is the implementation of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which sets nutrition standards for federally funded school lunches. Last week, the House Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee released its 2015 funding plan, which includes language to create a waiver system for school districts that claim meeting nutrition standards would create economic hardship.

Obama called the subcommittee’s action an unacceptable roll back of the new nutrition standards, an action that undermines parents’ efforts to raise healthy children. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 90 percent of schools report they have successfully met the new standards. A Harvard study found that, with the Hunger-Free Kids Act, children are eating 16 percent more vegetables and 23 percent more fruit at lunch. Contrary to claims by opponents of the Act, the Harvard study also showed the new standards did not increase food waste.

“Our school lunch program costs taxpayers more than $10 billion a year. And before these new standards, a lot of that money was spent on meals that had more than the recommended amounts of salt, sugar and fat — meals that weren't meeting basic nutrition guidelines.” — Michelle Obama

Childhood obesity has been Michelle Obama’s signature issue as First Lady. Her Let’s Move campaign promotes exercise and healthy eating at schools across the country. Obama notes that while there has been some gains made in lowering the obesity rate, one in three children in the U.S. are still overweight, which puts them on track to develop diabetes. According to Obama, the nation currently spends $190 billion on obesity-related diseases. She asks her audience to imagine what the figure would be 20 years from now if the country fails to take action.

Alabama Representative Robert Aderholt, Chair of the House Subcommittee on Agriculture, says he and his colleagues are concerned about the problem of childhood obesity, but are also sensitive to challenges faced by local school districts. Aderholt claims that districts in his home state are seeking flexibility with the law so that they can provide affordable school lunches that children will actually eat. He believes that issuing temporary waivers will give schools the necessary time to adjust their lunch programs to conform to the law.