First Lady Has Food Industry in a Frenzy

Michelle Obama’s push for better nutrition is bringing sweeping changes to agriculture, manufacturing, commerce, schools, and American homes.

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 04: U.S. first lady Michelle Obama jokes with schoolchildren with White House chef Sam Kass (L) after planting the White House Kitchen Garden on the South Lawn of the White House April 4, 2013 in Washington, DC. For the fifth time, the first lady invited students from 'schools that have made exceptional improvements to school lunches' from Florida, Massachusetts, Tennessee and Vermont to help her plant the garden.
National Journal
Jerry Hagstrom
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Jerry Hagstrom
March 16, 2014, 7:45 a.m.

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.

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