The intent of the first lady's project was to combat childhood obesity. Across the country, one-in-three kids are overweight or obese. It's not only bad for their own health, but as Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack testified, obesity costs the country $147 billion each year in health care. It even tangentially threatens national security: "Nearly one-quarter of young adults are too overweight to serve in the military," Vilsack said.
The School Nutrition Association represents 55,000 cafeteria workers and school nutritionists, and at first the group supported the act. Spokeswoman Diane Pratt-Heavner says the organization later backed away when the regulations unfurled, which she called "complex and costly."
(A report by Politico, however, attributed much of the shift in support to the "Big Food" industry, which it said despises restrictions that cut profits. Also interesting, this story about how companies have adjusted slushies, funnel cakes, even Cheetos to fit the new standards.)
The SNA wants the Agriculture Department, which oversees school-lunch programs, to soften the regulations, which they say don't properly fund schools for the increased costs of serving healthier food and which forces vegetables on kids who want pizza.
Take, for example, the burden of the whole-wheat tortilla.
In Queen Creek, Arizona, a small suburb of Phoenix, Carol Weekly is a mother and dietitian who runs the district's food program. In order to meet the standards, Weekly says she purchases whole-wheat tortillas because flour tortillas won't make the nutritional cut. Students line up for lunch, place the whole-wheat tortilla on their trays, then discard it into the garbage.
They do this because, as Weekly asks rhetorically, who eats whole-wheat tortillas?
"I have never purchased whole-wheat tortillas even for my own house," Weekly says.
The regulations require too much, too fast, and don't take into consideration that kids can just opt out of eating, critics say. Part of the law requires that each student take a portion of vegetables and fruit. If a student doesn't, a cashier is obliged to place a serving on their plate. So, not only do students throw the tortillas in the trash, they also dump their applesauce, oranges, milk, and little plastic baggies of carrots.
"They don't want to eat carrots," Weekly says. "Should we offer it? Should we offer variety? Absolutely. But the fact that you're going to force them to take it, that's not reality."
This has lead to increased waste, critics say. As a result of the swap in healthier, less appealing food, 1.4 million children have opted out of school lunch, according to the SNA. The pressure to serve sometimes more costly, healthy food and the decline of lunch participation has led some schools to lose a lot of money. In a Rochester, New York, school district—the same one where officers patrol kids from fleeing the cafeteria for the convenience store—district supervisor of school nutrition Deborah Beauvais calculated that the act added $26,000 in wasted produce. In Weekly's district, she says it forced her to cut a nutritionist position.