How First Lady Michelle Obama Can Avoid a Contentious Political Battle Over the School Lunch Program

In a rare move and a somewhat awkward political display, First Lady Michelle Obama gathered school officials at the White House yesterday to “rally support” for the Administration’s healthier school meals initiative.

New school lunch rules were approved in 2010 and have been phased in over the last two years.  Among other things, they set limits on the amount of calories, sodium and sugar content for foods and beverages served as part the school breakfast, lunch and after school programs.

Not surprisingly, the implementation of the new rules has not gone smoothly.  The increased cost of reformulated products that meet the new criteria and the increased expense of complying with a mandate to serve more fresh fruits & vegetables have busted the budgets of many school districts.

In addition, the changes have not been embraced by America’s youth.  Many schools are reporting an increase in plate waste (a fancy term for food that is thrown in the garbage can rather than consumed) and/or negative feedback from students about the taste of food now sold in schools.

At the conclusion of yesterday’s meeting, a White House staffer called Congress’ involvement in the issue, spurred by concerns from school practitioners, an “attack” on the Administration’s vision of healthier meals in schools.

That is where the First Lady and her staff have gone off the rails.   No one has advocated for repeal of the changes. No organization has picked a public fight over the new standards.  So, why such a defensive “take it or leave it” mentality?

As the saying goes, “you can work hard or you can work smart.”  In this case, the First Lady and the Administration are working hard, not smart.  Their maniacal focus on limits for calories, sodium and sugar with little or no regard for palatability and cost has led them into a public and emotional political battle they would rather not have.

The White House, led by a chef-trained food policy director should know better.  “Healthy” food that goes uneaten cannot move us in the direction we want to go as a nation.  And anyone who has done consumer research in the last ten years knows that consumers – including school students – want healthy food choices that are “bursting with flavor.”

If the Administration wants to work smart and not hard, it would:

  • Dial back the rhetoric and move this debate away from the glare of the TV cameras and newspaper headlines.

  • Welcome the honest feedback they are getting from the front lines and find solutions that strengthen the program.

  • Combine the new nutrition standards with training and education for school personnel on how to create healthy and flavorful meals that will appeal to today’s youth.

  • Create a blue ribbon panel of celebrity chefs to develop a healthy school recipe database for foods and ingredients that comply with the new rules and that could be easily implemented at the local level.

  • Embrace recent events as an opportunity to seek increased school funding to cover the food and training costs associated with their policies.

This five-point plan provides a pathway to avert a nasty political battle between two federal branches of government and put our schools on the right course to play a constructive role in the battle against childhood obesity. But at the end of the day, this looks like just another strong-headed defense of a flawed idea by an embattled Administration, rather than an earnest effort to get to the right answer.

Sean McBride, Founder and Principal of DSM Strategic Communications & Consulting, LLC, is former Executive Vice President of Communications & Membership at the Grocery Manufacturers Association and former Director of Communications at the American Beverage Association