Michelle Obama's food fightWhy rolling back the school nutrition standards will hurt our kids and exacerbate the obesity epidemic.
My toddler is going through a phase. If the breakfast, lunch or dinner menu involves anything other than peanut butter on a spoon, my sweet little boy turns into King Joffrey and I’ve got a fight on my hands.
On the other side of the country, another mom – Michelle Obama -- is also engaged in a food fight. In her case, it’s not about one little boy’s sweet tooth, but our entire nation’s obesity epidemic.
Specifically, she’s fighting against efforts to roll back the school nutrition standards that were enacted with the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. At the time, the standards, which aim to deliver more nutrients to growing kids by setting limits on calories and salt, phasing in whole grains, and requiring that students take at least one fruit or vegetable per meal, enjoyed wide support. Today, there’s a concerted effort led by the School Nutrition Association (SNA) (a trade group backed by Coca-Cola, Domino’s Pizza and Pepsico) and certain members of Congress to roll them back.
I sat down with the First Lady to talk about the school lunch reforms she’s trying to save, and why we’ve come too far in the fight against childhood obesity to turn back now.
Why this matters
The childhood obesity crisis has been years in the making, but the school lunch reforms are the first organized, widespread move directed at shrinking the problem. At their core, the reforms are based on the idea that we need to relearn how to feed our kids.
“Before coming to the White House, I struggled, as a working parent with a traveling, busy husband, to figure out how to feed my kids healthy, and I didn’t get it right. Our pediatrician had to pull me aside and point out some things that were going wrong. I thought to myself, if a Princeton and Harvard educated professional woman doesn’t know how to adequately feed her kids, then what are other parents going through who don’t have access to the information I have?
When I first came to the White House, one of the first things I knew I wanted to take on was this issue, because now we know that there is a childhood obesity epidemic, and a lot of it comes from the fact that we have lost that core understanding of how to best nourish our kids. And the most important place to start tackling this issue is in our schools,” said Mrs. Obama.
Power to the parents
Mrs. Obama recognizes that mealtime battles are an inevitable part of trying to raise healthy eaters, and she says that the school nutrition reforms give parents an ally in the effort.
“It’s so important for our schools to make the hard calls for our kids, because parents are struggling enough at home. So once you make that decision to set the rules, you don’t want to be undermined when your kids go to school and have some sweet cereal for breakfast with chocolate milk followed by a donut and then a burger and fries for lunch. That’s why we’re in the state that we’re in right now, in regards to the epidemic of childhood obesity.
We have to be the ones in charge of what our kids eat. We have to set the tone and provide the examples, because what they learn now is what they’ll carry with them for the rest of their lives. I want to make sure that my girls know what healthy meals look like and feel like, so that when they leave my home and go to college, they at least have the knowledge to make the best choices for themselves.”
Responding to opponents
Those who are working to roll the reforms back cite reasons that should be familiar to most parents. Namely, that healthy food costs more than processed alternatives and is more difficult to prepare, and that kids don’t like eating their vegetables.
According to the SNA’s website, “Whole-grain items, fresh fruits and vegetables and low-fat snacks in particular have resulted in increased costs.”
Mrs. Obama refutes the claim that the cost of healthy food is a burden for schools, because 90 percent of schools are complying with the standards. In fact, she says, many schools implemented the standards before they had to.
“Many schools started implementing the standards before they were mandatory, because the principals understood that nutrition isn’t just about feeding good food to our kids, but it’s also about setting them up for academic success. Many of these schools have seen the difference in academic performance that these kids have when they have vegetables and whole grains, when they start out with a complete breakfast that carries them through the morning, when they’re getting regular physical activity. Schools have seen their test scores rise and attendance rates improve and disciplinary issues go away.”
As for complaints that kids just don’t like eating the healthier foods, Mrs. Obama has little patience.
“It is our job as adults to make sure that our kids eat what they need, not what they want. I struggle with that in my own life, and I tell you, if I let my kids dictate what we have for dinner every day, it would be French fries, chips and candy, but we don’t run our households like that, and we can’t run our schools like that.
The first step is not to roll back the standards, but to help the schools that are struggling do a better job at making the meals more enjoyable for the kids. Good health and flavor go hand in hand.
What we need to do is lend a hand to the schools that are struggling, not roll back the standards and say, Oh, well. The kids don’t like it so let them eat cake. We can’t afford to do that."
A call to action
Mrs. Obama urges parents to find out where their representatives stand on this issue, but also to talk to principals and school nutritionists to get informed about what's working and what's not at their kids' schools.
"That's our job as parents, to roll up our sleeves and know what's going on on the ground."
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