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First Lady Michelle Obama engaged Congress this week in a debate over nationwide standards for school lunches. At issue is an attempt by lawmakers to relax nutrition guidelines for school districts that want more flexibility. We explore the issues in play and why the the first lady felt compelled to make a rare foray into a direct political debate.
- Mary Clare Jalonick Reporter, The Associated Press
The First Lady Speaks Out At School Nutrition Roundtable
At a nutrition roundtable Tuesday, First Lady Michelle Obama called Congress’ efforts to relax school lunch standards “unacceptable.”
“It’s unacceptable to me not just as first lady, but as a mother,” she said.
Watch her full remarks below.
Improving School Nutrition
Locally, the issue of school lunches has become a familiar one on the show over the years.
In 2010, Ed Bruske, co-founder of DC Urban Farmers, talked with Kojo about food politics in DC .
In 2012, we hosted Tony Geraci, a chef and Food Service Director for Baltimore City Schools, for a discussion on his work to transform school lunches – from replacing “mystery meat” to starting a farm on school land to teach kids to grow the food they ate.
Geraci, who earned the nickname “Cafeteria Man,” was featured in a film by the same name.
And in 2013, Chez Panisse executive chef and sustainable food activist Alice Waters discussed ways that schools can prepare healthy meals and get kids excited about eating them.
“We want to have the kids feel that they’re loved. And when you bring kids around the table and they eat together and they eat something that’s good, they feel like they’re being taken care of,” Waters said.
In the video below, Waters and Restaurant Eve chef Cathal Armstrong spoke about improving school cafeterias.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, the breakfast wars, why fast food companies are focusing more on the first meal of the day and what the rise of the waffle taco says about modern American lifestyles. But first, the latest front in the battle over school meal standards.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIOn Tuesday, First Lady Michelle Obama made a rare foray into an explicitly political arena to criticize members of Congress who are trying to scale back nationwide dietary standards for school lunches. At issue is a spending bill on Capitol Hill that would allow schools to waive such standards, passed under a child nutrition law in 2010. Those rules require more fruits and vegetables and set limits on fat, sodium and sugar.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut critics claim they're inflexible and expensive. Joining us to explore what compelled the First Lady to assert herself in the debate and where it's likely to go from there is Mary Clare Jalonick. She is a reporter for the Associated Press. She joins us in studio. Mary Clare, welcome.
MS. MARY CLARE JALONICKThanks for having me.
NNAMDIGood to have you here. You, too, can join this conversation if you have questions or comments, 800-433-8850 is the number to call. What kind of flexibility do you think should be granted to school districts for meeting nationwide nutrition standards for the meals they serve to students. 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or send us a tweet @kojoshow. Mary Clare, the First Lady met with a group of school nutrition officials yesterday who say the standards put in place a few years ago for healthier school meals are working.
NNAMDIBefore we get into what members of Congress are trying to change right now, can you remind us of what the standards they want to make more flexible call for?
JALONICKYes. Well, there's two things. There are more nutrients required, things like whole grains. More fruits and vegetables at every meal. There's also limits on things like sodium and fat so basically there are more things that they want to have in meals and less of other things like greasy -- basically, it's all aimed at trying to get rid of the greasy pizzas and French fries that school lunches came to have for many years.
NNAMDIHave the rules been changed, altered in any way already to help schools that are struggling to meet the standards do so and if so, how?
JALONICKYeah, they have. USDA has been listening to a lot of these school lunch directors who have said that this has been difficult for them and they've done a couple of things. In 2012, right after the standards went into effect, they lifted maximums on certain grains and proteins, which had prompted a lot of students to say they were hungry, especially athletes.
JALONICKAnd then, last week, right as all of this was going on in Congress, USDA added a little bit of flexibility on whole grain pasta. Schools are required to have, right now, about 50 percent -- exactly 50 percent of their foods have to be whole grain rich, which means more than 51 percent whole grain. And then, this summer, they're going to have to have 100 percent whole grain-rich grain products.
JALONICKAnd so a lot of schools have been having problems, particularly with pasta, saying they don't hold together well. They're slimy. Whole grain pasta. So USDA is going to allow some of those schools, if they can prove they're having a problem, to have more flexibility and not go to 100 percent whole grain-rich pasta.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. In case you're just joining us, we're talking with Mary Clare Jalonick, she's a reporter for the Associated Press, about the attempt to push back nationwide nutrition standards for the meals that are served in school and what the First Lady had to say about that. What do you make of recent efforts on Capitol Hill to relax or put the pause button on those standards for school meals? Give us a call, 800-433-8850 or send email to email@example.com.
NNAMDIIt's my understanding that a lobbying group called the School Nutrition Association, which represents cafeteria administrators, has called these rules overly prescriptive. Several past presidents, however, of this organization were with the First Lady yesterday. The SNA supported the 2010 law. What changed?
JALONICKWell, I think they've been hearing from a lot of their school lunch directors. These officials who are just trying to make this work and they are having these really specific problems with whole grains. As I mentioned, there's been problems with getting sodium levels down and they have been now going to Capitol Hill and really lobbying hard for some of these changes.
JALONICKAnd they did not ask specifically for what the Republicans are trying to do, which is allow some schools to opt out entirely, but they do support that effort.
NNAMDIYou reported that the SNA's current president said the officials at the White House with First Lady Michelle Obama yesterday, quoting here, "weren't representative of those who now have concerns." You know, people would wonder, how could all of the past presidents say it's okay and the present president say, oh, those people are not representative?
JALONICKWell, I'm not really sure exactly what's going on inside that group's officials, but I know that -- I think that what the current people are hearing is from people who are trying to implement this in their cafeterias. And, you know, school nutrition officials have a really hard job. They have to do this huge math equation to get the right amount of nutrients and then also limit the right amount of things in each meal every day.
JALONICKSo I think that it's hard and they're hearing from a lot of their people that it's hard. There's also a lot of people who say they're doing it well and it's succeeding. But I think they're just trying to get additional flexibility for their schools and also, you know, it's costly so they're trying to help a lot of these officials keep their lunchrooms profitable.
NNAMDIThere seem to be a lot of people involved in this. Are they also hearing from the people who supply schools with food?
JALONICKYes. And SNA also represents, School Nutrition Association, also represents those people, which is the food industry. A lot of food in schools, most food in schools these days is supplied by food companies. And these food companies are trying to figure out how to formulate all of their foods to sell to the schools and they have definitely had a major job in transforming, you know, say, the frozen pizza people who used to sell these sort of fatty pizzas are now having to reformulate their pizzas to have whole wheat crust, to have less sodium, to have less fat.
JALONICKAnd so they really are effected also by these standards so, you know, they're talking to people as well.
NNAMDIEveryone from the frozen food companies to the potato industry exerts a certain degree of influence here. What did the members of Congress who want to change the standards aiming to do? This has been attached to a spending bill in the house.
JALONICKThat's right. In the House, there is a provision that would allow schools to opt out, to ask USDA to opt out of these programs entirely, if they're showing a loss for six months on their school foods programs, a financial loss.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. What kind of political capital do you think the First Lady is risking by asserting herself in this political fray on the issue of school nutrition standards? You can also send us a tweet @kojoshow, email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can go to our website, kojoshow.org, ask a question or make a comment there. Our first caller, Jeremy in Silver Spring, Maryland, you're on the air, Jeremy. Go ahead, please.
JEREMYThanks so much. I know that it's very difficult to (unintelligible) policy (unintelligible) however, it is incredibly necessary that we do this as there is a huge disconnect between practice and what we're learning in the classroom today in our public education system and we must serve healthy foods as we're teaching kids to eat healthy foods or else that disconnect will remain.
NNAMDIAnd what do you think would be the consequences of that disconnect, Jeremy?
JEREMYIt causes people to not value education. I would say that they don't find any motivation to apply themselves with education because they don't see it applying to their everyday life.
NNAMDIWell, there are those who would argue that previous generations didn't have these standards and yet they seemed to do fairly well in school. What would you say?
JEREMYI would say that our society is incredibly or increasingly practical (unintelligible) ...
NNAMDIIt's increasingly practical?
JEREMYYes. We now have access to information that they didn't in the past (unintelligible) …
NNAMDIOr in other words, practice what you preach. Okay. Thank you very much for your call, Jeremy. Again, you, too, can call us at 800-433-8850 with your questions or comments. We're talking with Mary Clare Jalonick. She's a reporter for the Associated Press. Michelle Obama says there is clear evidence that the program is working so far. What evidence is she pointing to?
JALONICKWell, you know, she had about six different administrators there yesterday and there are a lot of schools that are successfully implementing these standards. The statistics that they like to use is that 90 percent of schools have implemented the standards. And what opponents say is, well, that doesn't show that they've necessarily successfully implemented them, but there are a lot of schools that are doing great stuff and having a lot of success in serving new vegetables, new fruits, getting kids to try things they've never tried before.
JALONICKI was in a school in Virginia a few weeks ago and a little kindergartener was telling me all about how she tried kiwi for the first time and she'd never had it before. So I think that there's a lot of really good stories out there, too, and I think the White House was concerned that the problems that some schools are having was overwhelming the conversation and they wanted to get their side out as well.
NNAMDIWhat was the status quo before this law was passed in 2010? Were there standards at the federal level?
JALONICKYes, there's always been standards. I think that's something that people don't necessarily know. The federal government reimburses schools for free and low cost lunches for kids who need them and that's also forgotten, too, I think, as this is also a real hunger program. So in exchange for that reimbursement, the USDA and the government has always required certain standards for the food they serve.
JALONICKBut these new standards were a major overhaul and really made a lot of the foods a lot healthier. Obviously, as we said, you know, 10 years ago, you would've seen a lot more pizzas and French fries and hamburgers and, you know, fryers in cafeterias in schools than you do now.
NNAMDIIf you go to our website, kojoshow.org, you can see something that was put up there that includes a video of a conversation on this broadcast in the past of chefs, Alice Waters and Cathal Armstrong, talking about the challenge of serving healthier school meals. That was put up compliments of Erica Hendry. On now to Kaltanna in Manassas, Virginia. Kaltanna, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KALTANNAHi. I'm a doctor and I see a lot of patients in my clinic in Manassas and I counsel them regularly to change their diet (unintelligible) but they still don't lose their weight, but mostly I try to see if they're eating healthy lunch and most of them who don’t, decrease their weight. And the ones who are eating lunch at school and then I make them take healthy lunch from home and award them lunch at school and that's when we start seeing them reduce their weight. And I'm so happy that you're making this show today. I always said, why don't they change these lunches at school?
NNAMDIYou're saying that the children that you see who have problems with obesity are those who are eating unhealthy lunches at school. Those are the ones who have the most difficulty dealing with the problem.
KALTANNAYes. They're also, in addition to this, are going to McDonald's and eating unhealthy foods there. But once they stop seeing me, they make all those changes. They eat healthy food outside of school, but until we change the lunch and make them take lunch from home, we don't actually see much progress because they're eating those unhealthy food on a daily basis at school.
NNAMDIOkay, thank you very much for your call. Later in the broadcast, we'll be talking about the breakfast fast food wars. So that could be another problem in the eyes of some people, not so much for others. Kaltanna, thank you very much for yours. And there are those, Mary Clare, who would say that, well, it's easy for Kaltanna to say, she doesn't have any political risk in doing so. From what you can tell, what political capital is Michelle Obama risking by asserting herself more aggressively into the politics of this debate?
JALONICKWell, I'm not sure what she's risking, but she -- I definitely think she sees this as her legacy. She really put -- she lobbied for this specifically in 2010, or she lobbied for part of it as it was going through Congress. And I think people have really associated that with her, even though it hasn't only been her. It's been USDA, it was the Congress that passed this is 2010. But her name has kind of become synonymous with this.
JALONICKAnd so I think she really strongly believes in it. And I think she sees it as what she'll be remembered for. And she's been attacked over it, especially in campaign season. You know, I think that that's something that she really wants to see succeed because I think she's very much tied to it.
NNAMDIWe have time for one more caller. Here's Kadeja, in McLean, Va. Kadeja, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KADEJAHi. Well, I'm really proud of Michelle Obama for speaking out. I think that children need more advocates. I think, unfortunately, we're missing the big point, which is that our children are the victims here. Most of our -- I mean, I teach in a high-needs school where most of the children are eating most of their meals at school. They'll have breakfast, they'll have lunch, sometimes they take meals home. And their meals directly impact their education.
KADEJASo if they're eating high sugar, high fat foods, they have food coma right after lunch, they have -- at breakfast they're wired after the high-sugar meals. And I think it's really important that we really advocate for the children here. Look at our high obesity rates. We really can't, I think, let the food industry take this over. And also, why are these programs able to opt out? Why not look at the model programs that are making it work and make these schools, I mean, make these programs reach out to those model programs?
NNAMDIMary Clare, it's my understanding that that, too, has been suggested.
JALONICKYeah, that is actually -- Michelle Obama actually -- she sat down at a roundtable or a square table with these folks and asked them how they thought they could improve things. And that's one thing that she suggested, is really trying to work with individual schools that were having problems, as opposed to a broader opt out. But, you know, we'll see what happens in Congress on that.
NNAMDIMary Clare Jalonick. She's a reporter for the Associated Press. Thank you so much for joining us. We'll be keeping track of this story and so may be calling on you again.
JALONICKGreat. Thank you so much.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, the aforementioned breakfast wars. Why fast food companies are focusing more on the first meal of the day. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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