- Associated Press - Saturday, February 26, 2011

MIAMI BEACH, FLA. (AP) - Though she lobbied Congress last year to boost the reimbursement rate for school lunches, food celebrity Rachael Ray said Saturday that improving school nutrition can best be tackled closer to home, in small steps without stepping on toes.

“As long as you don’t insult someone and start with a conversation instead of a lecture, it’s really easy to find people who are willing to make small changes,” she said. “Finger wagging turns everyone off.”

Ray, whose Yum-o! charity teaches kids healthy eating, spoke about that approach in an Associated Press interview at the South Beach Wine and Food Festival. While she applauds the recently announced plan by the Agriculture Department to implement the first major nutritional overhaul of students’ meals in 15 years, Ray said parents and others shouldn’t sit back.

Under the guidelines announced last month, school cafeterias would be required to cut the sodium in subsidized lunches by more than half, use more whole grains and serve low-fat milk. But those changes could take years to implement, and in the meantime, schools can find other ways to encourage healthy eating, such as having students plant gardens or offering healthier options in vending machines, Ray said.

“You don’t have to wait for them to make a law, you can make changes in your own school by just going in there and telling them you care,” she said.

Seven months after Ray’s trip to Washington last spring, President Barack Obama signed a bill in December expanding access to free lunch programs and increasing the federal reimbursement for free school lunches by 6 cents a meal. Ray said she was pleasantly surprised that members of Congress listened to her pitch, but she was struck by the shortsightedness of some who couldn’t see that the obese children of today will be generating costly medical bills years into the future.

“They can’t see that debt yet, so they’re not going to do anything about it, it doesn’t exist,” she said. “It’s really childish, ironically.”

She said she doesn’t understand people who cast the debate over food policy as a battle between elitists and common folk or who criticize first lady Michelle Obama’s fitness and childhood obesity initiatives.

“How could you criticize the idea of children playing in the sunshine and eating healthy food?” she said. “I don’t know any one person in my broad or tight circle that agrees with any of that.”

Though she grew up eating a healthy, Mediterranean-style diet, Ray said she was a latecomer to exercise, and didn’t start running until she turned 40.

“When I started running, I felt like I wasted 20 years of my adult life,” she said. “It makes such an emotional difference, and such a huge difference in your clarity of thought to vigorously exercise on a regular basis.”