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EDITORIAL: The first lady’s food fight

The White House is making a mess of schoolhouse nutrition

- - Thursday, May 29, 2014

Michelle Obama has challenged congressional Republicans to a food fight. The first lady lashed out Tuesday at House leaders who have been assisting school districts trying to get out of federal school-lunch dictates. "It's unacceptable to me," she said, "not just as first lady, but also as a mother."

The White House has busied itself confiscating school-cafeteria menus and replacing them with recipes imposed from Washington to limit calories, restrict sweets and processed foods, and force kids eat their fruits and vegetables. As every mother knows, an edict won't get Miles or Olivia or Savannah to eat their green beans.

A January report by the Government Accountability Office found that the new school-lunch standards require many schools to pay more for food, and many school cafeterias have insufficient room to store the required food and have been compelled to invest in expensive, new kitchen equipment.

The one-size-fits-all rules are frustrating school administrators. Hard-boiled eggs are contraband, and a glass of skim milk greater than 12 ounces is as illegal as a Big Gulp in Manhattan. Hummus, a favorite of dieticians because it's packed with protein and dietary fiber, is forbidden because it has a high fat content. Pretzels, which are usually low in fat, contain too much salt. At least 321 school districts across the fruited plain are looking for a way out.

So, too, are the athletes who leave the table with pangs of hunger because Mrs. Obama insists the young football players, like everyone else, are entitled only to small portions. Students are voting with their lunch pails, turning down the unappetizing fare and packing their lunches at home. Federal figures say that the number of students in the national school lunch program fell by more than 1 million last year, even though the number of eligible students increased by 1.2 million.

The health-conscious overhaul of school lunches continued to fall apart last week. Cafeteria cooks complain that high-fiber whole-wheat spaghetti disintegrates when cooked in mass quantities. The U.S. Department of Agriculture intended to mandate that all pastas used in public school lunches contain at least 50 percent whole grain. But the federally approved noodles, particularly elbow macaroni and lasagna noodles, fall to small pieces and turn into an unappealing mush in boiling water. The bureaucrats retreated and agreed to a two-year delay.

The federal restrictions on calories and sodium make it nearly impossible for schools to serve students the enriched-flour pasta that many of them regularly eat at home. Familiar school-lunch staples like spaghetti, lasagna and macaroni-and-cheese are disappearing from school cafeterias coast to coast, effectively banned by the Obama administration.

The first lady no doubt has good intentions in cracking down on calories, processed foods and the excessive size of portions. But her crusade is a good example of the folly of a centralized bureaucracy that proposes to solve the world's problems from a cubicle at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. One-size-fits-all is not the answer, and congressional Republicans should proceed to create a system of waivers that would relieve school districts of the restrictions that are leaving children hungry.