First lady Michelle Obama on Tuesday chided congressional Republicans for attempting to roll back her school lunch standards, calling the effort “unacceptable” and accusing lawmakers of playing politics with the health of young students.
The unusual step by Mrs. Obama, who largely has avoided political scuffles during her husband’s time in office, underscores the growing unrest around the initiative and a real chance that the standards, at least in their current form, may not survive much longer.
The first lady now is going toe-to-toe with lawmakers in the House and Senate, where proposals to alter the lunch guidelines are gaining traction as students flee the program in droves.
In just the past year, daily participation in federally funded school lunch programs has declined by more than 1 million students, according to the School Nutrition Association, even though the number of eligible students has increased by 1.2 million.
But those realities — coupled with highly publicized instances of students turning up their noses at healthier meals or dumping them into trash cans — aren’t dissuading Mrs. Obama, who has made nutrition and fitness, especially among children, her primary focus.
Her comments Tuesday show her passion about the issue and how dramatic changes to the program would be, to some degree, a personal defeat for her.
“This is unacceptable,” she said during a White House meeting with school nutrition officials, slamming a Republican-backed proposal that would allow districts to opt out of the standards if they lose money on lunch programs over a six-month period.
“It’s unacceptable to me not just as first lady but also as a mother. The last thing we can afford to do right now is play politics with our kids’ health,” she said. “Now is not the time to roll back everything we have worked for.”
The standards became law in December 2010, when President Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The legislation requires students to be served more fruits and vegetables and limits the amount of sweets and processed foods in school cafeterias across the country.
The program also limits the calorie count of a school meal to 850.
There is virtually no argument that healthy food in schools is a noble goal as part of a broader effort to fight childhood obesity, but the rigid nature of the standards has led to a backlash among students and school cafeteria workers, who are petitioning Congress for relief.
“The administration’s own data proves that student participation in school lunch is abruptly down in 48 states despite rising school enrollment and 30 years of steady program growth,” Leah Schmidt, president of the School Nutrition Association, said in a statement Tuesday.
“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,” Ms. Schmidt said.
Last week, the House Appropriations subcommittee on agriculture passed a bill to address complaints that some schools are losing money by being forced to buy healthier, often more expensive food while demand continues to decline.
More than 500 schools nationwide have dropped out of the program this school year, according to the Agriculture Department.
The House measure would allow schools to apply for waivers from the lunch standards if they show they have lost money for six months.
“I am standing with our nation’s schools to provide them the flexibility they are requesting from Congress. The language in this bill simply provides those schools that are having difficulty complying with the regulations the ability to obtain a temporary, one-year waiver,” said Rep. Robert B. Aderholt, Alabama Republican and chairman of the agriculture subcommittee.
“Fewer kids are buying school lunches, and that undermines the intention to increase healthy eating in schools. This ultimately jeopardizes the economics of the program in many counties,” he said.
The waiver proposal, however, would face an uphill battle in a Senate controlled by Democrats, many of whom are staunch supporters of Mrs. Obama’s approach.
But the Senate is taking its own steps to adjust the program.
The Senate Appropriations Committee last week passed a fiscal year 2015 funding bill for the Agriculture Department that would require, among other things, the department to report to Congress on how it will help schools implement the guidelines.
The bill also prevents scheduled limits on sodium levels from going into effect and calls on the Agriculture Department to review whether schools realistically can provide 100 percent whole-grain pasta and bread. That 100 percent requirement is set to go into effect in the fall.