Michelle Obama's Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act could become not-so-healthy following Monday's announcement from Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue that the new administration will eliminate some of the nutritional standards that had been applied to federally subsidized school meals during her tenure.
The new guidelines will follow many of the recommendations released in March by the School Nutrition Association, a lobbying group that has pushed for more flexibility in healthy meal planning for school lunches.
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was part of Obama's broader Let's Move program, which launched in 2010 with an aggressive goal of reversing skyrocketing child obesity rates (17 percent), and returning to pre-1980 levels of about 5 percent by the year 2030. For years, nutritionists like me, along with school nurses, pediatricians, and others watched this disturbing escalation in child obesity unfold, yet often felt helpless in combating the many environmental and societal changes contributing to this uptick. Value meals, an explosion in portion sizes, the emergence of a generation of children glued to electronics, and supermarket choices that either were endless (inviting excess in affluent areas) or negligible (inviting reliance on cheap calorie-dense snack foods in low-income areas) made putting a dent in this epidemic seem like a nearly impossible challenge.
With Let's Move, we suddenly had a high-profile ally in the fight — someone who could bring much-needed attention to the devastating impact of poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle on child health and maybe even affect change.
Let's Move emphasized messages nutritionists and other health-care providers have advocated for years for schools and families — more fruits and vegetables, a return to regular physical activity, more whole grains, fewer sugar-sweetened beverages, and more family meal time. However, these messages were neither glitzy nor necessarily welcomed. Obama's willingness to dive in and spread the message using her passion and high-energy style (and inviting others to join her), helped give voice to the cause and made eating healthy and physical activity more palatable, possible, and priority number one.
Additionally, Let's Move supported food and nutrition policy changes that updated standards of school meals to include more fresh fruits and vegetables, less sugar, more whole grains, and less sodium. While some found these standards difficult to implement due to cost and limited acceptance by children, dedicated school food-service directors continued to strive to make these changes work.
Now that Obama is no longer the face of Let's Move, what will happen in the years to come?
Although the most visible components of the program — Obama's numerous public appearances and her signature style — may no longer be front and center, the policy changes that promote healthy eating and physical activity in schools and communities remain and many of the resources offered to parents, nutritionists, teachers, school food-service staff, and health professionals are still available. The American public may be more ready now to accept healthier options in schools, to use food and menu labels to help guide food choices, and to find ways to incorporate more physical activity in creative ways.
Committed school nurses, teachers, school food-service personnel, and others dedicated to the cause will no doubt continue to work hard to keep the healthy messages alive. As parents, we can also make a concerted effort to be better role models by making wise eating choices ourselves and squeezing in time to move more.
No one person can reverse child obesity, but all of us can play a part. Regardless of the political fate of her initiatives, Obama provided a much-needed jumpstart in the fight against child obesity by making it top-of-mind for parents, schools, and communities across the nation — a lasting legacy for the benefit of our kids' health.