First lady Michelle Obama has crusaded for better nutrition. / Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP
WASHINGTON â?? First lady Michelle Obama stepped into the political/policy arena Tuesday, criticizing House Republicans over a plan to permit exceptions to new federal nutrition standards for school lunches.
"This is unacceptable," she said while meeting with an invited group of school nutrition officials. "It's unacceptable to me not just as first lady, but also as a mother."
Citing the rising incidence of obesity among children and adults, the first lady said "the last thing we can afford to do right now is play politics with our kids health" and "now is not the time to roll back everything we have worked for."
House Republicans said the proposal -- part of an Agriculture Department appropriations bill -- would be a temporary, one-year waiver for schools that are having financial trouble meeting the new food standards.
Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., said some school officials in her state are having trouble "making ends meet" because of the new food regulations, and this should be a local issue in any event.
"We all want our kids to be healthy, and school lunches should reflect that goal," she said. "But decisions about how to best go about that should be made by parents and local school nutritionists and administrators, not Washington bureaucrats."
Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., who chairs the subcommittee that handles agriculture appropriations, said the new rules have "upset the economics of the school meals program by driving the cost of the plate up while pushing participation down. This is causing some school systems to abandon the school meals program altogether."
The new regulations, part of a child nutrition law passed in 2010, require more whole grains in school lunches and set limits on fat, calories, sugar and sodium in food products.
The House Appropriations Committee could approve the overall spending bill as early as this week.
Even if the proposed waiver gets passed by the full Republican-run House, it would likely face opposition from the Democratic-run Senate.
In the meeting with the first lady, school officials from districts across the country said they have had success serving students more whole grain rich products, fruits and vegetables.
Michelle Obama â?? who has tended to stay away from congressional battles â?? said she believes that nutrition experts, such as the Institute of Medicine, should set the standards, not members of Congress.
Urging supporters to lobby Congress against proposed changes, the first lady said "we have to be willing to fight the hard fight now."
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