Heavyweight Champs

The Republicans who want to cut Michelle Obama’s healthy school lunches come from some of the most obese states in the union.

Michelle Obama.
First lady Michelle Obama eats lunch with students in the cafeteria at Parklawn Elementary School in Alexandria, Virginia, in 2012.

Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

In December 2010, with the clock winding down on their time in the majority, House Democrats teamed up with a small group of Republicans to pass the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, a sweeping bill aimed at providing healthier meals for children at schools across the country. The legislation, which President Obama quickly signed into law, gave the secretary of agriculture the authority to write new rules requiring schools to serve up more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and less salt, sugar, and fat. It marked a high-profile victory for Michelle Obama, who by then had already made fighting childhood obesity her trademark issue as first lady.

While it’s still early, the rules are proving effective by most accounts. More than 90 percent of the nation’s schools say they’ve implemented the new nutrition benchmarks, and public health experts are largely happy with the results. Fruit and vegetable consumption in schools is up, and, counter to some anecdotal evidence, less food is going to waste, according to a recent report from the Harvard School of Public Health. But if House Republicans have their way later this summer, those healthy meals may no longer be on the menu when students return to school this fall.

House Republicans have tucked a provision into the agriculture spending bill currently winding its way through Congress that would allow any school cafeteria that lost money for six straight months to ask for a one-year reprieve from the new standards. The waiver would apply not only to the new set of rules but also to a forthcoming set of health standards that further ratchet up the requirements. That means that the provision wouldn’t just keep some lunches from getting healthier but would likely allow some schools to offer less healthy lunches than they do now.

Conservatives hoping to let money-losing kitchens serve up trays of cheaper, less-healthy fare say the existing rules already threaten to make cafeterias go broke and leave picky students to go hungry. But those behind loosening the nutrition standards are ignoring a more pressing issue: The ballooning waistlines and deteriorating health of America’s children—specifically the kids in their own home states. Of the 29 Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee who voted last month to keep the waiver in the bill, 17 hail from states that include portions of what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has dubbed the “diabetes belt.” A dozen of these Republican lawmakers represent states with the dubious distinction of having rates of overweight and obese children among the 10 highest in the nation. Among the worst offenders, according to the 2011 National Survey of Children’s Health: Alabama, home to Rep. Robert Aderholt, the subcommittee chairman in charge of setting funding levels for school nutrition programs and the chief architect of the waiver provision; Kentucky, represented by Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers; and Texas, which boasts a trio of its own powerful Appropriations subcommittee chairmen. In all, only four of the panel’s Republicans come from states that have a percentage of obese and overweight children significantly lower than the national average of 31.3 percent. Not that any member of Congress can gloat: Utah Rep. Chris Stewart’s home state’s rate of 22.1 percent is the best in the nation but would still be among the worst in the world.

Due in part to the child obesity epidemic, some doctors fear this generation of American kids may become the first to live shorter, less healthy lives than their parents. Nonetheless, GOP leaders insist the long-term health crisis must take a backseat to the near-term financial concerns of school cafeterias—which currently need to meet the healthier standards in order to secure federal reimbursement for a portion of the meals they serve—and the companies that produce the food in the first place.

The idea of giving schools an easy out has plenty of critics, and not just the first lady and the president, who has threatened to veto the bill if it rolls back the improvements won in 2010. The White House counts roughly 100 national organizations—ranging from the Children’s Defense Fund to the March of Dimes—as allies in its fight to preserve the updated school nutrition rules, with a growing chorus that has specifically come out in opposition to the waiver itself, including the Center for Science in the Public Interest and Mission: Readiness, a group of retired military officials who warn that the nation’s obesity crisis is becoming a national security issue now that more than one in five Americans is too heavy to enlist.

Republicans have their own high-profile ally in the waiver fight: the School Nutrition Association, a group that includes both the cafeterias that serve the food and some of the companies that produce it. The organization was a big booster of the first lady’s campaign to push through the new standards in 2010. But four years later the SNA, under new leadership, has switched sides. “These overprescriptive regulations have made it really difficult for a lot of our members,” SNA president Leah Schmidt told NPR last week. “And we are in this for our members.” Republicans say the change of heart proves that the first batch of standards, which went into effect two years ago, were too aggressive.

It’s impossible to say exactly what was behind SNA’s official switch, although a recent report from the Environmental Working Group suggests an obvious answer: processed food giants that stand to gain from the loosening of the nutrition rules. According to the EWG’s tally, more than 60 percent of the $10.5 million the SNA collected in 2012 came from sponsorship fees from large, processed-food companies. (SNA disputes the group’s math, but its own estimates nonetheless suggest the number is around 50 percent.) This year alone, Domino’s, PepsiCo, and a handful of others have already ponied up at least $10,000 each to sponsor the School Nutrition Association’s annual conference. Nor is there uniform opinion about SNA’s new posture. Nineteen of the group’s past presidents have publicly broken with the organization over the waiver issue, sending a letter to Congress last month asking them to strip the waiver from the spending bill. “We must not reverse the progress that was sought by school leaders and is well on its way to success in most schools,” they wrote.

The potential impact and reach of the proposed waiver remain hard to predict. According to Department of Agriculture figures, roughly 90 percent of school cafeterias say they’re meeting the new rules. But since it is possible that some kitchens that are already meeting the standards could be operating at a loss, the number of schools that apply for a waiver could in theory be greater than 10 percent. Proponents of the new nutrition standards believe that Republicans have intentionally written the provision to encourage a greater number of schools to opt out.

In an interview with Slate late last week, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack suggested the current food fight is Act Two of a three-act political play. It began with last year’s fight over food stamps, he said, and won’t end until next year when lawmakers have to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act, which lays out funding for the school lunch program, among other things. “I have to hand it to them, this is a politically shrewd move, an opportunity to energize their base,” he told me. “There are some people who oppose this government program just because they don’t like the government.”

Republicans pushing to exempt schools from improved nutritional standards deny they’re playing politics but aren’t hiding the fact they have no plans to stop soon. During a committee hearing last month, Florida Democrat Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz asked Rep. Aderholt if Republicans were looking to eliminate the new standards all together. “Not in this bill,” the Alabama legislator replied, drawing a round of laughter from the room.