By many accounts, the Obama administration is leading the most aggressive campaign to improve the nation's eating habits in many decades. If the President and first lady have their way, the American people will cut down on sugar and sodium and eat more whole grains, lean meat, low-fat dairy products, and fruits and vegetables by the time he leaves office and in the years to come.
Many of those changes could result in multibillion-dollar shifts in how the government and consumers spend their money on food. Perhaps just as important, the efforts to reduce sodium, sugar, and fat will force companies to make changes in how they prepare, store, and ship food. But many of those initiatives are under pressure from food companies and from members of Congress.
On Friday, in a speech to the Partnership for a Healthier America—a private-sector group set up to push the administration's nutrition objectives—the first lady said: "Because of what we have all done together, today, 32 million kids are getting healthier school meals. Tens of thousands of schools are removing junk food ads from their classroom. Fifteen thousand child-care centers will be providing healthier snacks and getting those cute little kids up and moving. Food and beverage companies have cut 6.4 trillion calories from their products. We will soon have better nutrition labels on 700,000 food items. Hundreds of new or renovated grocery stores are reaching millions of people in underserved communities."
But the very same day, at a House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill, the opposition surfaced.
The subcommittee's chairman, GOP Rep. Robert Aderholt of Alabama, told Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack that he is receiving complaints from schools and from the School Nutrition Association, which represents school food-service directors, that some schools are facing both a financial and logistical burden in implementing the new school-meals programs and are requesting a delay.
Vilsack said that the Agriculture Department's general counsel has determined that the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act "specifically prohibits me from granting a waiver that relates to the nutritional content of program meals served or the sale of competitive foods."
Vilsack acknowledged that Congress had asked in report language that USDA consider a waiver, but added, "Since report language is nonbinding in nature, and statutory prohibitions are binding, USDA is respectfully unable to comply with the directive to establish a waiver process."
Vilsack noted that about 90 percent of the schools have already complied with the new school meal menu patterns required under the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, and that USDA is trying to help schools comply with the new rules. But a food-industry official told National Journal that that the real issue is that many more schools are concerned about implementing the healthy school snacks program by July.
At the same hearing, Rep. David Valadao, a California Republican, noted that 67 House members had written Vilsack on Thursday expressing disappointment that USDA's Food and Nutrition Service ignored a request by Congress to add white potatoes to the list of eligible foods for beneficiaries of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, known as WIC.
Vilsack said the average American eats nearly 90 pounds of potatoes per year and noted that WIC is a supplemental program that is encouraging the purchase of items that children need, such as dark, leafy green vegetables. USDA officials are following the recommendations of the Institute of Medicine, but in a bow to Congress have asked the institute to reexamine the WIC food package ahead of schedule, said Kevin Concannon, the Agriculture undersecretary for food, nutrition, and consumer services, when he announced that the package would provide for more purchases of fruits and vegetables.
The food and grocery industry also has to deal with a new nutrition labeling campaign that the first lady announced in the company of Food and Drug Administration officials. The back-of-package labels would reflect accurate serving sizes, list added sugars, and display calories more prominently.
The industry has said it will work with FDA on the new labels, but has also announced its own front-of-package labeling system that would be more prominent but would not contain all the same information.
There are clear winners in the food industry as a result of the administration's campaign. The fruit and vegetable industry is on Michelle Obama's side—although they also say new science shows the government should encourage children to eat white potatoes. Many companies have announced they will reformulate their products to meet the government's new guidelines.
"The leadership of the first lady is something that we listened to," Philip Caradec of the yogurt company Dannon said in an interview after Friday's event. He added that Dannon is pleased that USDA reduced the assumed portion size of yogurt from 8 to 6 ounces.
But there are also food companies that consider themselves losers because at the very least they will have to go to the expense of reformulating their products or lose government business entirely.
Over the decades the food industry, school food service directors, farmers, and the rest of agribusiness have won many battles with nutritionists and the medical profession over government policies on what Americans should eat.
But faceless bureaucrats usually mount the campaigns for better nutrition. The industry has never had to deal with a first lady who is so public in her campaigns. Industry officials know better than to take on publicly someone who can get on any television show she wants, and they are always thrilled to be invited to the White House for a meeting or a public event.
The first lady is ably aided by Sam Kass, the assistant White House chef who is executive director of "Let's Move." Kass's position as the cook for the Obama family makes him a star promoter of the nutrition agenda on TV and in appearances around the country.
The last three years of the administration are crunch time. Like other first ladies, Michelle Obama's power is derivative and she can't formally make policy. The White House kitchen garden and the Let's Move campaign have been nice. But what happens if there are real showdowns over these policies could be one of the great dramas of the Obama administration's second term.
On Friday, the first lady signaled that she'll use all her power to see the nutrition initiatives through to the end.
"We don't just walk away when things get hard, especially when it comes to our children's future," she said. "And we cannot walk away from this issue until obesity rates drop for children of every age and every background. We cannot walk away until every child in this country has a shot at a healthy life. And that's why I'm in this for the long haul—and I mean long after I leave the White House. Because I believe in finishing what I start, and I know that you all do too."
Contributing Editor Jerry Hagstrom is the founder and executive director of The Hagstrom Report, which may be found at www.HagstromReport.com.
This article appears in the March 17, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.