For the most part, Michelle Obama has been the typical first lady, taking on family-oriented issues and staying out of politics and public policy. That changed this week when Obama criticized a Republican plan to give financially troubled schools a one-year reprieve from meeting new federal nutrition standards for school lunches.
"This is unacceptable," she said at a Tuesday meeting with school nutrition officials from five states. "It's unacceptable to me not just as first lady, but also as a mother."
While Obama's efforts to encourage the nation to make healthier food choices have largely been well received, they are not without their critics. According to a Government Accountability Office report, during the 2012-13 academic year, 1.2 million children stopped buying school lunches in part because the changes to content and nutrition requirements displeased their young palates.
In a statement, Leah Schmidt, head of the School Nutrition Association, an influential lobbying group, urged the White House to listen to the concerns expressed by cafeteria professionals.
“SNA does not want to gut the nutrition standards — we support many of the requirements. 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,” said Schmidt.
Speaking as a mother whose own children complain when fish is served for dinner, Obama noted that it takes children "a second to change their habits," but that's no reason to roll back changes that she believes are having a significantly positive effect.
The first lady argued that one in three children in the U.S. are overweight or obese and on track to develop diabetes in their lifetimes. She also noted that $190 billion is spent each year treating obesity-related conditions. But thanks to the new nutritional requirements, Obama said, kids are eating more fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy products and whole grains. In addition, school-lunch program participation is up in many districts.
"The last thing that we can afford to do right now is play politics with our kids' health, especially when we're finally starting to see some progress on this issue. We're starting to move the curve on this issue," Obama said.
Lawmakers, she added, must be held accountable for the decisions they make that could affect children's health.
"Transforming the health of an entire generation is no small task. But we have to be willing to fight the hard fight now," the first lady said.
Follow Joyce Jones on Twitter: @BETpolitichick.
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(Photo: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)