School lunches

First lady is right to weigh in on behalf of law requiring good nutrition for students

Michelle Obama has taken the unusual step of getting personally involved in a congressional fight. The battle is about federal standards for school lunches, and she is right to weigh in. Parents do not need their efforts to teach their children to eat healthy foods undermined by schools effectively teaching the kids to eat junk.

Given the lunch standards fit perfectly with her “Let’s Move” campaign to reduce obesity, it is only natural for the first lady to get involved. She spoke Tuesday to a White House gathering of school leaders and child-nutrition experts, saying a move on the part of House Republicans to roll back a 2010 child nutrition law is “unacceptable.” That law set requirements for federally subsidized free or reduced-price school lunches. More than 30 million American students qualify for the program.

The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 set standards for sodium and included a requirement that students pick at least one fruit or vegetable to qualify for the free meal. And according to White House sources, the law has already yielded improvements in children’s health.

Of course, there is resistance. In 2011, frozen-food makers got Congress to declare pizza a vegetable for purposes of the law. Potato growers have been trying to ease restrictions on french fries. Both efforts are reminiscent of a Reagan-era rule that labeled catsup a vegetable for school lunches.

Now, processed-food companies and the School Nutrition Association, which originally supported the 2010 school lunch rules, want Congress to grant waivers to allow school districts to opt out of the lunch rules. (The Washington Post says “the SNA receives funding from firms that supply food to schools, such as ConAgra, Domino’s Pizza and Schwan Food Co.”)

They claim schools are finding it hard to comply with the standards, food is going to waste and the rules are proving costly.

That last is odd, in that the 2010 law also increased the federal subsidy to schools for the lunch program. And the waste allegation is even stranger.

The president-elect of the School Nutrition Association told CNN of trash cans full of oranges and apples. She said, “Students will pick up what they’re supposed to have at the end of the line and then immediately throw it in the garbage.”

So, the answer is to let young children decide the menu? What parent lets that go on? What parent has not said no dessert until the vegetables are eaten?

Schools may not have that level of control over lunch rooms, but they can ensure that what is offered is healthy. And, of course, the food companies will object. The easiest and cheapest way to get kids to eat anything is to load it up with salt, sugar and fat.

Understanding that, more and more parents are trying to encourage healthy eating in their children. That need not be extreme or fanatical, just what the first lady is advocating – more fruit, more vegetables, less of what we all know is junk. And in that, they could use the support of the schools.

For that matter, so could local farmers. Every part of the country produces some locally available foods, almost all of which are healthier than heavily processed stuff from the big food companies. Kids might want to live on Twinkies, but once exposed to real food, many will find they actually enjoy the taste of it.

Michelle Obama is right. Even if kids do not learn to like good food, even if their parents do not care, school lunches should ensure students get at least one healthy meal per day.