WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Barack Obama administration hopes its boost to American school lunch and nutrition programs lasts longer than his presidency.
And while accepting that the hoped-for co-operation between Democratic and Republican politicians has not occurred, causing some programs to become controversial, the executive director of Michelle Obama’s nutrition program, Let’s Move, says there’s reason to believe some of the initiatives will survive past 2018.
“They were built for sustainability. None of these are one-offs,” said Deb Eschmeyer in a meeting with members of the North American Agricultural Journalists April 27.
“The First Lady is dedicated to this work for the long haul. This is not something that is going to end once they leave Pennsylvania Avenue. This is something they are truly dedicated to.”
Unlike in Canada, where school nutrition programs are either provincial, civic or within school divisions, the U.S. has had national school lunch programs since the 1940s. That has sometimes allowed school lunches to become national political and partisan issues, as is the case now.
In 2010, the Obama-supported Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act was passed, allowing the U.S. Department of Agriculture to impose tough standards on the nutritional quality of food being provided in school lunches across the country.
The program set standards for food that could be served, encouraged schools to use local food, restricted flavoured and fatty milk and generally made school lunches more nutritious but harder for schools to provide.
Some critics have claimed the school lunches are bland, expensive or wasteful, and are an unacceptable imposition on local authorities and schools.
Supporters say the gains in child wellness are great already and the programs’ teething problems can be managed.
Eschmeyer, an Ohio farmer, said the nutritional guidelines shouldn’t be controversial and should survive the end of the Obama presidency, because they are not based on anything particular to the Obamas.
“This is something that is actually not political. This is science. We should be doing what’s right by our kids based off scientific recommendations,” said Eschmeyer.
More than 90 percent of U.S. schools are believed to be meeting the program’s requirements.
Most of the Let’s Move programs are public-private partnerships that have drawn in non-government support because of the grave health problems developing in the American population. About one in three U.S. schoolchildren is believed to be overweight or obese.
“This is a true epidemic that is costing our society $350 billion,” said Eschmeyer.
“We have to address it by ensuring that what we’re providing in the national schools lunch program is actually healthy.”
While the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act stoked partisan controversy by imposing more federal regulations on local school authorities, food-based controversies are common in U.S. politics because of the greater role of its federal government in food issues than is typical in Canada.
The biggest program operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture is the food stamps program, which provides food support for poor families, and that has often resulted in Republican-Democratic splits, politics and rancor.