First Lady Michelle Obama’s efforts to improve the healthiness of the nation’s school lunches take a hit in the new trillion-dollar omnibus spending bill unveiled by House Republicans Tuesday.
The First Lady has made exercise and healthy eating for children her top policy concern, and since 2012 a variety of measures have been gradually phased in which require schools to serve more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables while cutting down on sodium and fat.
Critics, however, have criticized the standards for being costly and for causing many children to simply stop eating school lunches. Government Accountability Office data indicates that the number of students buying school lunches has dropped by over 1.5 million. (RELATED: The School Lunches Malia And Sasha Eat Vs. The Crap Michelle Obama Has Foisted On America)
Now, if the Republican bill passes, school lunch standards will be softened in a variety of ways. Among the most notable changes would be delaying the rollout of a tougher cap on sodium. Several nutrition experts have criticized the sodium caps, saying there is currently not scientific evidence that it would benefit children.
The omnibus bill would also allow schools to get an exemption from requirements to serve high amounts of whole grain if schools can show that providing it would inflict “hardship” upon them.
The bill would also ban the use of chicken imported from China in federal school lunch programs.
The School Nutrition Association (SNA), the country’s largest professional body of school nutrition professionals, endorsed the spending bill’s changes, saying it would give schools needed flexibility.
“USDA’s regulations were well intended, but have resulted in unintended, adverse consequences,” said SNA CEO Patricia Montague. “Since the new standards took effect, 1.5 million dissatisfied students have given up on school meals, taking their lunch money with them. The financial impact is crippling some school meal programs and limiting their ability to invest in the kind of innovative, appealing menus that can entice students back to the cafeteria.”
Some in the GOP hoped to roll back Obama’s school lunch mandates entirely, but for the time being they appear to have settled on a compromise approach. However, they’ll have another chance soon, as the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 that dictates current school lunch policy expires in 2015. Republicans are expected to push for significant changes to the bill during the negotiations for its renewal.
The First Lady has not yet responded to Republicans’ proposed rollbacks, but in the past she has avoided giving ground on the issue, saying Congress should try to help schools meet the nutrition standards rather than simply granting waivers for those short on money.
“[We can’t say,] ‘Oh, well. The kids don’t like it so let them eat cake.’ We can’t afford to do that,” she said in an interview last summer with MSN, as quoted in The Hill.
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