Politics & Policy

The ‘Common Calorie’ Revolt

First Lady Michelle Obama with students at an Alexandria, Va., cafeteria. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Schools and students fight the tasteless, small lunches required by Michelle Obama’s signature initiative.

Michelle Obama is mad. The New York Times reports that a key reason she isn’t hitting the campaign trail to reelect vulnerable Democrats is that she feels many of them haven’t done enough to defend her signature initiative as first lady: the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, designed to fight childhood obesity. The Times reports that she was “particularly angered when eleven Democrats from potato-growing states signed a letter by Republicans opposing the administration’s exclusion of white potatoes from the foods” eligible for federal nutrition subsidies. Too many people eat too many white potatoes, Mrs. Obama believes, and nutrition subsidies should not apply to this starch.

Yes, there’s a fierce debate today over Common Core education standards. But the debate over “common calories” in school cafeterias is almost as intense. All over the country, school districts, parents, and students are in revolt at the new nutrition standards being dictated by Washington. They apply to the 30 million students who eat lunch or breakfast or both at school (for 21 million of them, the meals are free or at nominal cost). Students complain that stringent new calorie caps along with limits on salt content and fat have created meals they find unappetizing, unappealing, and too small. Jokes about “bonsai-size breakfasts” and “rabbit-food lunches” are now common in cafeterias, and food waste is up dramatically.

“Kids can’t learn when they’re hungry,” parents shouted to school-board members at a recent meeting in Harlan, Ky. School districts are complaining they are losing revenue because students won’t eat food they consider tasteless and are either brown-bagging it or buying food off-campus. In the past, school lunch programs operated at no cost to local taxpayers because students who could pay the full cost subsidized the free and reduced-lunch program and the schools could also use vending machines and à la carte menus to make money selling other items to students.

All that is changing. In the 2012–13 school year, 47 percent of school meal programs reported revenue losses, and nine of ten reported higher food costs. An increasing number of schools that don’t have a large number of students participating in the free or reduced-lunch programs are dropping out of the federal initiative entirely. Douglas County in Colorado withdrew its high schools this year because it feared that the new national standards would close its popular Subway franchise and other à la carte sales, crippling its meals program. For the first time ever, participation in the federal school-lunch program has fallen, from 31.93 million in 2011 to 30.51 million last year. “Fewer students are eating school meals, and the escalating costs of meeting overly prescriptive regulations are putting school meal programs in financial jeopardy,” Patricia Montague, CEO of the School Nutrition Association (SNA), told me last month.

What most worries the SNA, which represents 55,000 managers and workers at public-school cafeterias, is that a new round of federal regulations governing snacks and sodium standards went into effect on July 1. A school in Bloomfield, N.Y., for instance, has been forced to remove its Snapple flavored-iced-tea machine. Restrictions on student bake sales or fundraisers are also now in effect, making it hard to raise money for worthy projects unless students can be convinced to buy fruit cups and granola bars instead of cupcakes and brownies. Some schools have banned Girl Scouts from setting up tables to sell cookies.

The one-size-fits-all approach of the federal restrictions also bothers school officials. As Rick Petfalski of the Muskego-Norway School District in Wisconsin told National Review Online in August, the new guidelines mean that a 225-pound football linebacker receives the same calorie allotment at lunch as a 110-pound freshman girl (750 to 850 calories). “These are decisions that are best made at the local level,” Petfalski said.

The sodium restrictions are draconian, limiting meals to 120 milligrams of naturally occurring sodium. The Institute of Medicine says the latest sodium reductions “will present major challenges and may not be possible.” They also come at a time when there is increasing scientific evidence that people without high blood pressure — including the vast majority of younger Americans — might not need to reduce their current salt intake.

None of this has made any impact on federal regulators or Michelle Obama. Last month, she gave an interview on Channel One, a program seen in thousands of school classrooms, in which she acknowledged that she has had to be stern in convincing her own kids to eat all their vegetables. “But I know that I’m doing it because I’m giving my kids the best that I know I can give them,” she said.

As for other people’s kids, she made clear that they, too, are going to have to live with the new federal standards — even if they throw away the food because it isn’t appealing. The first lady was uncompromising: “Don’t be mad because there are changes. Figure out why the changes are important, and then find out how you make it work for you.”

But help may be on the way. This year, many Republicans and Democrats in the House joined to pass some targeted relief from the new federal regulations. The Senate didn’t take up the issue, but if Republicans take the Senate next month, Congress is likely to send a relief measure to President Obama’s desk. He could veto it even as complaints from his liberal base of educators and urban parents continue to mount. Or he could sign it and face having to tell Michelle that her signature initiative is now politically unappetizing. It would be a tough call for him to make, but for the sake of the nation’s schoolchildren, here’s hoping the next Congress forces him to choose.

— John Fund is national-affairs correspondent for NRO.

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