White House

‘They Know She Cares': Michelle Obama's School Nutrition Legacy

The new nutritional standards in schools were spurred by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, one of the central policies at the heart of Obama’s effort to address childhood obesity

Fried chicken nuggets, chicken fingers, and patties are the thing of the past at Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia. Healthier options have been on the menu thanks to Michelle Obama's healthy school lunch initiative. 

When Rodney K. Taylor, director of food and nutrition services at the schools, received a directive to make lunch food healthier, by adding fruits, veggies and whole grains, he decided to take it a step further and eliminate the fried options. 

He begun serving grilled spice-rubbed chicken to students instead.  

“No-one made a peep,” Taylor said of the reaction among students.

The new nutritional standards in schools were spurred by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, one of the central policies at the heart of Obama’s effort to address childhood obesity. It was signed in 2010 and took effect in 2014. The legislation required schools to increase the servings of fruits and vegetables, increase the amount of whole grains, and reduce the amount of sodium and sugar in meals provided to students.

As Obama prepares to leave the White House at the end of 2016, it's not clear yet whether the changes are helping reduce childhood obesity. But supporters say the program is already a win because kids are eating whole grains and lower-sodium options.

“It was revolutionary, it took away the focus from the bottom line and moved it to nutrition,” said Taylor, who has over a decade of experience as food director. “When I first started no-one was talking about nutrition so we really contributed to the obesity epidemic. It’s a good thing the legislators stepped in.”

The act encountered heavy pushback from conservatives who viewed it as executive overreach. Obama, however, has never relented, exerting pressure on the GOP, including in a 2014 New York Times op-ed piece.

“Remember a few years ago when Congress declared that the sauce on a slice of pizza should count as a vegetable in school lunches? You don’t have to be a nutritionist to know that this doesn’t make much sense,” she wrote.

Later that year, at a White House event, she said, “I’m going to fight until the bitter end to make sure that every kid in this country continues to have the best nutrition that they can have in our schools.”

The first lady’s strategy paid off because in late January the Senate Agriculture Committee released a statement in favor of reauthorizing the program.

“Folks said we couldn’t come to an agreement on child nutrition reauthorization – let alone a bipartisan agreement – but we did,” chairman Pat Roberts said. “This bipartisan legislation is a true compromise. Not everyone got everything they wanted, but a lot of folks have a lot to be happy about.”

The School Nutrition Association, a nonprofit professional organization that advocates for healthful school meals, is one such party. The group previously criticized the new standards as financially prohibitive, too strict, and unfeasible for schools to adopt so quickly. HHFKA originally required 100 percent of all grains served at schools be whole grain rich and that sodium levels be cut in half by 2017. Those standards have been loosened—the whole grain requirement to 80 percent of all grains served and the sodium deadline extended to 2019.

“The SNA was pleased to work with the USDA and the White House to reach an agreement,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations at the SNA.
Kevin Concannon, USDA undersecretary for Food Nutrition and Consumer Services, said “we didn’t want to punish schools who were struggling to meet the standards.” Concannon went on to say, though, that more than 98 percent of schools are meeting the guidelines.

Sept. 30, 2015, marked the deadline for Congress to reauthorize the HHFKA but lawmakers blew past it. While the lack of reauthorization didn't impact existing programs, advocates pushing for reauthorization look at it as an opportunity to increase funding for school lunches. 

HHFKA is relatively new and measurable public health outcomes will take years if not decades.

Margot Wootan, director of of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, though, expects a positive effect. Wootan called the act “enormously important” and explained that her expectations are not unreasonable because children get a third to half their daily calories from school meals. With the calories now coming from more nutritionally dense foods, positive outcomes are likely. Jessica Donze Black, director of Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods at The Pew Charitable Trusts, said with all the sound science behind the policy she expects that HHFKA will "significantly impact the health outcomes of children."     

Schools across the country have been reporting other positive outcomes. Since the widespread acceptance of the standards independent studies have shown that plate waste, where uneaten food ends up in the trash, is actually down while fruit and vegetable consumption has gone up.

Lynette Dodson, director of school nutrition of Carrolton City schools in Carrolton, Georgia, said that the children are eating the fruits and vegetables, going through three times as many bananas alone compared to before the act. Schools in Carrolton track the amount of fruit and vegetable consumption using production records. She also said that teachers in her district saw almost immediate positive impacts on student attentiveness and behavior.

Because of this Dodson said the district has adopted a new mantra. “Whole food is good food.”

Undersecretary Concannon, said he hears similar stories during his visits to schools all over the country. He called a lot of the early criticisms of the first lady’s initiative “more noise than anything else.” Concannon said families are on board, given that the school lunch program now serves close to 31 million children and the school breakfast program serves almost 15 million children, about 5 million more than before HHFKA was enacted. Statistics from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation support Concannon’s claim, with the number of parents who support the new standards outnumbering parents who do not 3 to 1.

“For kids, Michelle Obama has become a symbol," Concannon said. "They know she cares.” 

The first lady has vowed to continue to work on issues of childhood obesity even after her time in the White House is up.

“It's not like I have a one-year or two-year time frame on this issue. For me, this issue is the rest-of-my-life kind of time frame," she said at the White House earlier this year. "Because I know that's what it's going to take to truly solve this problem."

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