Some Thoughts on Playing Politics With Kids’ Health
In this fraught moment, it would be good to remember that school food used to be a mostly bipartisan issue
By Bettina Siegel
This post first appeared on The Lunch Tray, and a portion of it was adapted from Siegel’s book, “Kid Food: The Challenge of Feeding Children in a Highly Processed World.”
But since then, I’ve also been mulling over the particular timing of the rules’ release — Michelle Obama’s 56th birthday — and what it says about where we are as a nation with respect to child nutrition.
I should state upfront that a U.S. Department of Agriculture spokesperson claimed in The New York Times that the agency “had not intended” to make its announcement on Mrs. Obama’s birthday. But it strains credulity to believe the timing wasn’t entirely intentional: Normally, when federal agencies release news on a Friday afternoon, they’re actively trying to bury it, yet the Trump administration has never been low-key about its efforts to gut school nutrition.
Back in May 2017, when the USDA announced its first weakening of school nutrition standards, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue actually took the time to travel to an elementary school cafeteria in Leesburg, Virginia, to share the news. He was accompanied not just by reporters and photographers, but also the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee and the CEO of the School Nutrition Association. Then, after enjoying a chicken nugget lunch with students, he even made a show of signing a proclamation promising to “Make School Meals Great Again.”
Then, after enjoying a chicken nugget lunch with students, he even made a show of signing a proclamation promising to “Make School Meals Great Again.”
Perdue’s echoing of President’s Trump’s campaign slogan that day spoke volumes to detractors and supporters alike. Putting aside any other motivation for gutting school nutrition, the opportunity to chip away at one of Michelle Obama’s signature issues clearly offered its own political reward. (There’s a reason why, just weeks after President Trump was elected, unwinding Mrs. Obama’s school reform efforts was at the very top of the House Freedom Caucus’ “First 100 Days” wish list.)
The oh-so-curious timing of last Friday’s announcement similarly spoke volumes, and many Trump supporters clearly grooved on the administration’s implicit rebuke to the former first lady. Sample tweet: “Happy birthday Michelle Obama! Goodbye to your oppressive school lunch regulations, which guaranteed maximum food wasted. You have just been #Trumped.”
In this fraught moment, it would be good to remember that school food used to be a mostly bipartisan issue, dating back to the meal program’s establishment in 1946. In fact, it was the Republican president, George W. Bush, who first laid the groundwork for reform by directing the Institute of Medicine to propose healthier nutritional requirements. Mrs. Obama was only building on those efforts when she championed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, and the legislation was passed — on a bipartisan basis — in 2010.
But when the School Nutrition Association, previously a supporter of the law, eventually sought to weaken it, the organization found a sympathetic ear among conservative House Republicans. Before long, the issue of school food became highly politicized and was frequently used as a cudgel to bash the first lady, who endured attacks that one columnist at the time described as illogical and “astonishingly ugly.”
Illogical, ugly — and often quite hypocritical.
Back in 2011, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie applauded the first lady’s school food reform efforts, poignantly citing his own lifelong struggle with obesity. It is “a really good goal to get kids to eat better,” he told a reporter then. “I’ve struggled with my weight for 30 years. And it’s a struggle. And if a kid can avoid that in his adult years or her adult years, more power to them. And I think the first lady is speaking out well.”
But in 2016, when Christie was desperate to break out of the crowded Republican presidential primary field, it was another story. “[U]sing the government to mandate her point of view on what people should be eating every day is none of [Michelle Obama’s] business,” he told a town hall audience. “[It’s] just another example of how the Obamas believe that they’ve got a better answer for everything than you do.”
Sarah Palin, too, was a particularly harsh critic of Mrs. Obama’s anti-childhood obesity initiatives, telling conservative radio host Laura Ingraham in 2010 that the first lady should “leave us alone, get off our back, and allow us as individuals to exercise our own God-given rights to make our own decisions.” But when she was governor of Alaska, Palin asked for more state funding to combat childhood obesity and supported a statewide anti-obesity initiative, which included improving the food served in Alaska’s early childhood education centers.
In our culture, a politician’s views about food are often used as a litmus test — a surefire way of weeding out the kombucha-sipping “foodie elite” from the burger-eating “regular Joes.” This worldview may help explain why we have a “Diabetes Belt” in this country, a swath of Southern and Southeastern states where conservative politics and obesity are closely correlated.
But even Democrats know the drill. When then-primary candidate John Kerry visited the Iowa State Fair in 2003, his press secretary Robert Gibbs was reportedly horrified to see him buying a smoothie. Perhaps recalling the infamous 2004 attack ad calling Howard Dean a “latte-drinking, sushi- eating” liberal, Gibbs was overheard frantically phoning a staffer: “Somebody get a f — ing corn dog in his hand — now!”
It’s a funny anecdote, but playing around with child nutrition policy to score political points is anything but. The Trump administration’s prior rollbacks have already ensured that school children are regularly consuming more sodium and refined grains than recommended by the federal government’s own Dietary Guidelines. This latest iteration of Making School Meals Great Again would make it easier for schools to swap out hash browns for the required fruit in school breakfasts, to serve fewer red and orange vegetables on the lunch line, and to sell more pizza in their snack line, among other troubling changes. All this, even as the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health predicts that 60 percent of today’s children will be not just overweight, but obese, by age 35.
Someone has “just been #Trumped,” that’s for sure. But it’s not Michelle Obama, as that gleeful tweeter would like to believe. She’s going to be just fine.
It’s America’s schoolchildren who are on the receiving end of this most dubious birthday gift.