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Michelle Obama will fight healthy school lunch rollback

By Tom Hamburger and Kimberly Kindy

WASHINGTON — Sounding a new aggressive tone, fi rst lady Michelle Obama vowed in a private conference call on Monday to fi ght industry efforts at rolling back healthy school-lunch standards, an issue that could come up for a vote on Capitol Hill later this week.

The remarks to health activists were made in an off-the-record conference call at the beginning of a week of intense lobbying around proposed changes in the national school-lunch program, which sets standards for fat, sugar and sodium levels in food.

“I was thrilled that the first lady pulled advocates together this morning and sounded such a strong rallying cry to fight back against efforts to weaken the school food standards,” said Margo Wootan, who lobbies on Capitol Hill and elsewhere on behalf of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

A House Appropriations bill to be considered in committee later this week would allow schools to apply for waivers if they have a net fi nancial loss on school food programs for six months in a row.

The first lady has made child health — including nutrition and exercise — a top priority since her husband took office in 2009. But she has served generally as a cheerleader for industry efforts to reduce childhood obesity — and has not been publicly critical of corporate agriculture.

That appears to be changing as agribusiness firms lobby for delays or wholesale changes in a school nutrition program that the Obama administration put in place.

Healthy school lunches were originally introduced during the presidency of George W. Bush. The rules requiring healthier school lunches were partly included in the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, passed in 2010 with White House support.

The standards have come in for criticism from industry and from some schoolchildren. An organization of school nutritionists has reported that kids are opting out of the program, creating waste and other unforeseen outcomes. Advocates say that program needs time and patience and that the school nutritionist group is underwritten by agri-businesses.

This week the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture is expected to consider language in a 2015 spending bill that would provide a waiver for many school districts for new rules due to go in to effect. Among other things, the rules would mandate more whole-grain foods and include requirements that students receive a fruit and vegetable serving with their school meals.

Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., has been sharply critical of the standards. “As a father and a coach, Congressman Davis has a strong, personal interest in this issue,” said Andrew Flach, a Davis spokesman. “We’ve heard from many school districts, large and small, who feel that Washington simply isn’t listening to their concerns with the school-lunch program. So he’s working to provide our schools with the flexibility they need from the one-size-fits-all approach to enable them to serve cost-effective, healthy meals that the students will actually eat.”

In 2011, Congress adopted special rules recommended by industry that permitted pizza — thanks to its use of tomato sauce — to be counted as a vegetable to meet the law’s requirements. In addition Congress loosened planned restrictions on the number of times in a week french fries could be served to students.

With a House Appropriations vote expected midweek, Wootan said the first lady’s strong views provided welcome news.

“I think this will help strengthen the resolve of Democrats in Congress,” she said.