A Nanny State?

The Republican War on Kale

As they take control of the House and Senate, some in the GOP are gearing up to change or even kill the school lunch bill, which they see as the government literally telling your kids to eat their vegetables.

Photo Illustration by Emil Lendof/The Daily Beast

Obama agenda, meet the wrecking ball. That’s what many of the president’s key legislative accomplishments will face when Republicans take the reins of Senate committees this week. Among the items that incoming Republican committee chairmen are likely to try to tweak, block, change, or kill entirely: the Affordable Care Act, Dodd-Frank banking regulations, the executive order giving legal status to some undocumented immigrations, and administration plans to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba.

But few of the Obama-approved initiatives in the GOP’s sites are as personal to the White House, or as unpopular with Republicans, as portions of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, legislation championed by first lady Michelle Obama in 2010 to make school lunches in American schools healthier as a part of her efforts to battle the country’s rampant rate of childhood obesity.

But where the first lady saw a chance to give kids nutritious meals they might otherwise never eat, some Republicans saw the ultimate Obama Nanny State, literally the government telling your kids to eat their vegetables.

While both Democrats and Republicans supported the school lunch bill in 2010, critics say the problems came in 2012, when the USDA wrote the regulations to implement the law, reportedly with significant input from the White House. Changes to school breakfasts and lunches included calorie caps, a ban on trans fats, increased fruit and vegetable offerings, and sodium reductions. But some individual regulations went further: requiring that a fruit or vegetable be served on the plate as a part of every meal, whether a student wants it or not. As of 2014, every bread product served had to be 100 percent whole grain, including croutons, tortillas, bagels, and biscuits (there are whole-grain biscuits?). New sodium limits had to factor in a serving of low-fat milk, whether the students drink milk with their meal or not, making a turkey and cheese sandwich borderline verboten when all of the sodium is added up.

The menu changes won praise from nutritionists, but spawned an avalanche of complaints from parents, school districts, and, yes, a whole lot of kids on Twitter (see #ThanksMichelleObama for a dose of teen angst fueled by french fry withdrawal).

According to the USDA, student participation began to fall, with 1.4 million students opting out of the lunch program entirely. As the numbers shrank, Mrs. Obama took a prominent role to encourage schools to keep working to make the changes, starring in a video on the USDA’s website to offer free trainings on menu planning, financial management, and reducing plate waste, telling them, “I know this hasn’t always been easy.”

When House Republicans moved last year to roll back some of the provisions, the first lady wrote a rare New York Times op-ed, scolding the GOP for trying to undo the changes. “Our children deserve so much better than this,” she wrote. Despite her personal pitch, several exemptions to the rules were buried deep inside the “Cromnibus” government funding bill that passed Congress last month.

But the highest hurdle for the revamped school meals may lie ahead, as the GOP-led Congress takes up legislation to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act, which will includes the National School Lunch Program. The man in charge of that process for Republicans will likely be Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS), the incoming chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Roberts’ spokeswoman wouldn’t comment on his specific plans for the legislation, since he hasn’t yet been elected to the chairmanship. But Roberts touted his efforts to end what he described as “the Obama administration’s regulatory overreach,” arguing some kids may need more calories than the cap allows, and saying the rules in general defied common sense.

Diane Pratt-Heavner, the spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association, said her organization is “hopeful” that Congress will give schools more flexibility in the coming months.

“Our members continue to face a number of challenges,” she said. “We’re hearing from them that it has been too much, too fast.”

Among the complaints she’s heard from schools are the new costs to school districts of providing more expensive food, which was not entirely paid for by Congress, increases in the amount of food students throw away, and students bringing less healthy lunches from home or buying fast food near their schools if they decide to opt out of the lunches the schools are serving.

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“We have raised this with the White House and the USDA, we’re certainly appreciative of the flexibility we’ve gotten,” she said. “But it’s not enough.”

Rep. John Kline (R-MN), who will lead the GOP effort in the House, has also criticized the lack of flexibility for schools and is expected to make his own push to roll back some or all of the regulations when he oversees the Child Nutrition re-authorization on the House side this year.

“This is a federal mandate that is causing some real problems for schools across the country,” Kline told a CBS affiliate in July. “They’re looking for flexibility, not fights over whether a white potato is a vegetable.”