09/28/2012 02:45 pm ET Updated Nov 28, 2012

The Right Wing and the School Food Calorie Kerfuffle

The controversy over the new school food calorie limits is intensifying.

Just to bring everyone up to speed:  the old school food regulations only had calorie minimums, which made sense given the National School Lunch Program's original purpose of combatting childhood malnutrition.  Now in an era of childhood obesity, the new lunch regulations provide both calorie minimums and maximums, capping out at 650 calories for grades K-5, 700 calories for middle schoolers and 850 calories for high schoolers.  These limits are based on Institute of Medicine dietary recommendations and reflect 1/3 of a child's daily caloric needs.

The calorie limits, coupled with new weekly grain/meat limits and a mandated increase in fruits and vegetables mean that kids who refuse to eat fruits and vegetables now have fewer alternatives to fill them up at lunch.  (Unlimited additional fruits and vegetables are available to any kid who wants them, but if you're hungry precisely because you don't like fruit and vegetables, that's obviously not a solution.)  The new regulations also reportedly result in more food waste, since those veggie/fruit-hating kids now have yet more food to toss in the trash.

ABC News Senior National Correspondent Jim Avila summed up the situation well in a report earlier this week, which you can view here.

The calorie issue is getting particular traction in right-wing media outlets and I've already told you about Republican congressmen seeking to repeal the calorie caps, calling the new regulations "the nanny state personified."

I try not to get too political when I talk about school food reform; improving the health of American children should be a bipartisan issue.  But in the real world, sadly, school food reform and childhood obesity are highly politicized (see my 2011 Lunch Tray post, "Why is Childhood Obesity a Red State/Blue State Issue?").  

Why should that be?

Jon Stewart, as usual, gets right to the heart of the matter. Here's his segment on the calorie issue from last night's show

As I wrote back in 2010, having Michelle Obama as the public face of school food reform virtually guarantees right-wing opposition to the effort.  If you disagree, try out this thought experiment:  if Laura Bush had adopted childhood obesity instead of literacy as her primary cause while in the White House, do you think conservatives would be in the same tizzy over school food reform?  As I once wrote:

. . . it's hard for me to get into the mindset that sees Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign as encroaching on personal freedom.  Absent pre-existing political animus toward the Obamas . . . that view seems about as rational to me as attacking former First Lady Laura Bush for "meddling in my child's education" or Lady Bird Johnson for "thinking she can tell us what flowers to plant on our highways."

But it's more than just the involvement of Michelle Obama.  As I reflected in 2010:

My sense is that we've hit upon a perfect storm of sorts:  the financial interests of Big Agriculture and Big Food are part if it, surely, but we also have a society in which, as Marion Nestle noted,  [j]unk food and obesity are key indicators of political divisions in our society. For starters, junk food is cheap and obesity is more common among low-income populations."  In addition, we have a President who has been easily portrayed by his opponents as a champion of Big Government, determined to trample on individual freedoms (as well as pedantic and elitist), while Michelle Obama is portrayed as harsh and militant.

Add to all of that the basic human impulse to eat stuff that's not great for us (and to resent people who tell us to do otherwise) and it's no wonder that (as the Washington Post piece put it) "'Don't let them take away your Big Mac!' becomes a rallying cry.

Politics aside, though, the calorie controversy does raise hard questions.  When you switch kids over from fries and nuggets to healthier food, there's inevitably going to be a lot of opposition.  Some kids will stubbornly refuse to eat the new food, and that does mean kids going hungry and perhaps less able to learn.   No one wants that outcome, of course, but it is a sufficient reason to change course?

As I wrote last week, I think the answer to that question has to be no.   In making the switch to better food, I think we have to take the long view, putting our money on the Class of 2024 -- i.e., those children now in kindergarten who have no expectations of daily fries and nuggets and to whom ample fruits and vegetables at lunch will just be the norm.

It's worth considering the experience of Chef Ann Cooper, who spoke on yesterday's Talk of the Nation and described the initial opposition she got from both kids and parents in the various districts around the country in which she's improved school food.  Now serving healthier food in Boulder, CO, she noted:

. . . .we're in year four. So, last year, our counts in Boulder were up - our participation was at 5 percent, and we're already at 5 percent this year over last year. But a lot of that is because this is the fourth year that kids are eating the food.

And when you make these kind of changes, you have to be looking 10 years out. So the high school kids that made the video or the high school kids that are complaining are seeing changes for the very first time, and I think that that's very, very difficult to overcome.