When Kevin Concannon, the Agriculture Department’s undersecretary for food, nutrition, and consumer services, travels for work, he consistently hears one request: Can you get Michelle Obama to come to our school?
“She’s clearly identified as a champion,” Concannon said, “and that helps us.”
Obama has made the fight against childhood obesity one of her signature policy priorities, and she has promoted better nutrition and physical activity for children through the “Let’s Move” program. The public health community has credited her with putting sustained focus on the issue.
“Having this be a priority of the first lady really strengthens all of us that work in nutrition policy and nutrition advocacy,” said Lorelei DiSogra, the vice president of nutrition and health for the United Fresh Produce Association, which represents fruit and vegetable growers. “Everybody is pulling in the same direction to make these changes that those of us in public health have been trying to make for many, many years.”
Much of Obama’s work on the issue has been through direct public outreach, such as media appearances and events. She rarely works directly with Congress, though she was actively involved in lobbying for passage of the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act and appeared with her husband at its signing. That bill requires that schools receiving federal reimbursement serve healthier meals and also provides them a 6-cent increase per meal if they meet the new standards.
“The first lady’s office helped enormously in getting it over the goal line,” Concannon said. Without her efforts, he said, “I don’t believe that it would have made it.”
Last month, several news outlets reported that schools were dropping out of the National School Lunch Program because the new food they were serving in compliance with USDA guidelines — limiting total calories and salt, and increasing the use of whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables — was being thrown out by students.
Concannon called the reports overblown, and added that USDA surveys show the number of schools that have dropped out of the program because of the meal requirements represented less than one-quarter of 1 percent of the total.
It’s not the first instance of criticism. When USDA released its guidelines in 2011 and attempted to curb the presence of some foods like white potatoes, there was backlash from both the industry and lawmakers.
“We thought that potatoes were being unfairly characterized as a nonnutritious source,” said Mark Szymanski, a spokesman for the National Potato Council. “In the final regulations, we got back to a more commonsense approach,” he added, referring to a move by the Senate to block the Agriculture Department from limiting vegetable servings.
“I took that as an indication that we were really accomplishing something,” said Sam Kass, the assistant White House chef and executive director of Let’s Move. “I think the pushback was relatively minimal compared to the size of the change that we were undertaking.”
USDA also issued guidelines on vending-machine snacks and cafeteria a la carte lines, which will be implemented during the next academic year. But the next food-driven battle will likely take place this fall over funding for the food-stamps program, which was separated from the rest of the farm bill this year in the House. Michelle Obama has not indicated she will lobby Congress, but pressure could come from her husband.
The Senate and the House handle child-nutrition programs differently. The Senate Agriculture Committee handles both school meals and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC, but in the House, child nutrition goes through the Education and the Workforce Committee.
The House Agriculture Committee has jurisdiction over food stamps and commodity-distribution programs. There is a debate in the country over whether food stamps — officially the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — should be changed so that beneficiaries cannot buy foods such as potato chips and soda that nutritionists deem unhealthy, and whether commodity-distribution programs that supply food banks and institutions should emphasize healthy foods rather than fulfilling their traditional job of removing surplus foods from the market to stabilize prices of meats and vegetables. Obama, who sticks to positive messages about what people should eat, and the House Agriculture panel, which responds to agriculture and antihunger groups that do not want the government to tell poor people what to eat, have both stayed out of those debates.
Kass said cuts proposed by Republicans are unpalatable to the White House. “I think what they put out is unconscionable and goes against the values that we hold,” he said. “That is not going to be part of any bill that gets to the president’s desk.”