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 in a report earlier this week:

Part of what’s driving the story this week is a parody video released by kids in Kansas to protest their hunger at lunch.


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 here on The Lunch Tray (except when I just can’t help myself), since 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 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.

For more on the new school food regulations and the calorie issue, I recommend reading the entire transcript of yesterday’s Talk of the Nation, also featuring Jessica Donze Black of the Kids’ Safe & Healthful Foods Project.

[This post now also appears on the Huffington Post.]

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  1. RedinNC says

    Thank you for writing this and for linking to Jon Stewart’s segment from last night, which was brilliant. I can’t tell you how angry the opposition to healthier lunches makes me (I’m sure you share this response). The right wing, Fox News et al would oppose baseball, motherhood, and apple pie if it came from the lips of Michelle Obama. How is anything supposed to ever get better in this country if everything is stymied by politics? It’s not like the changes to the lunches are drastic. Gee, cheese pizza becomes whole grain crust cheese pizza. Whoopee. Sorry, just venting in sympathy.

  2. says

    Great story Bettina! That Jon Stewart clip is really funny….

    As a parent and an educator, I know that change can take time and it would be foolhardy to expect the kids to love their fruits and veggies overnight. But that doesn’t mean we give up serving them healthy food! Both at home and at school, our job as adults is to keep trying. (As your Grandmother might say, if you are indeed hungry, you probably will eat that apple.)

    It is crazy to me that this is a controversy, and I think you are totally right that it’s very thinly veiled Michelle Obama bashing. Obviously the teenagers can go out and buy themselves junk food (if they have the cash), but federally funded for meals for children should be healthy. It’s a no-brainer.

  3. Diana says

    Looking through lunches is not a new thing. When my 22 yr old daughter was in ore-school I received a note that her lunch didn’t fit the national guidelines and if I wasn’t able to come up with the right formula (Yogurt doesn’t qualify as a protein), they would provide a peanut butter sandwich and add it to my bill. They apologized and said it had to do with federal guidelines.

    If we are providing food to a student we can regulate what food will be on hand. Otherwise they should bring it and pay for themselves.

    I agree though because the campaign is sponsored by Mrs Obama that it is villified. Imagine if she was the first to do the “Just say No” campaign. I imagine the response would be – say whatever you feel and if you can afford it you can do it.

  4. says

    They’re focusing on the calorie maximum because they don’t understand the nuances well enough to know that that the grain/protein min/max should be their target. This has nothing to do with Big Ag or being anti-Obama…it’s just plain “bad policy”. Far too many specifics in these regulations to make student choice a possibility. The USDA messed this one up by putting too many limits and constraints, and it is “nanny state”-ish in that they are not allowing Foodservice directors enough flexibility to do their jobs.

  5. says

    At the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, we believe the calorie maximum limits are reasonable and wholeheartedly agree with TLT’s long view approach. As both researchers and parents know, it takes time and persistence to get children of all ages to accept new foods. Hungry children will eventually eat what is in front of them; it takes strength of purpose to stay the course.

    Fear of waste undermines the new school meal standards. No one has properly assessed what and how much is being thrown away. From our previous studies we have found that people are inaccurate in their food observations and are biased to notice certain food items over others. For example, in our study of milk consumption in school cafeterias, all staff, including our own data collectors, believed that more plain milk than flavored milk was being wasted. However, objective measurement revealed that students threw away as much flavored milk as plain. Cafeteria and school staff expects to see and is concerned about wasted fruits and vegetables; as a result, staff may be more likely to notice this waste, and not other, less healthy discards.

    One potential solution to the problem of hungry kids at lunchtime is to focus on breakfast. Numerous studies have shown the importance of breakfast to support student learning, and adolescents are notorious for skipping breakfast. If high schoolers feel they need more than 850 calories at lunch, this may be because they are trying to make up for a missed meal. Rather than focusing on the number of calories available at lunch, efforts should be made to ensure that children are eating breakfast whether at home or at school.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Katherine: I so appreciate this concurrence from the Yale Rudd Center and agree wholeheartedly with your point about breakfast. One of the media reports I read criticizing the calorie limit used as an example a high school athlete who skips breakfast because he can’t eat before he lifts weights, and then he grabs a white flour bagel and Gatorade after lifting. Hardly the type of meal to sustain you until lunch. I know this is not true of all kids, but as you say, it is true for many teenagers.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      It’s really true. I often think that when I’m “hungry” a piece of fruit is not very appealing, but a piece of pizza certainly is. When I’m “HUNGRY,” fruit seems delicious! That really ought to be the test of true hunger. (Did Michael Pollan or someone say that somewhere? All of a sudden I feel like I’m plagiarizing! :-) )

  6. says

    I love this blog and am so thankful you are helping keep the light shining on the issue. Almost weekly I have been speaking from a stage about nutrition, kids meals, how to make things healthier and better for so many mainly kids. This is simply music to my ears!
    Thank you!
    Bets Craig
    Kitchens with Confidence

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Betsy: Thank you for the kind words! And thank you also for spreading the message about improving kids’ nutrition and health.

  7. Brian says

    I enjoy this blog and read it regularly so I thought I’d share a story from the trenches, as it were.

    I am a 1st grade teacher in a southern state, Title I school (95% free and reduced lunch) and here is the reality of the new food guidelines in my school: I know this is true because I eat breakfast and lunch with my kids every day and I eat the same foods they eat.

    Funny that I pay an “adult” price for the breakfast and lunch but receive the same portions as the kids receive. I’m not complaining — my waistline is shrinking and that’s a good thing for me — but I’m pained every day watching my hungry kids stay hungry after eating lunch and nearly every day I have to comfort sad children who don’t understand why they can’t eat what they want when they are presented with a long line of choices.

    These are children who may not eat an evening meal at home and may not get more than one meal a day on weekends, if that. Some parents are unable (for various reasons) to get their children to school on time for the free breakfast, which is also severely limited in choice, so these children face true hunger every day.

    When the children go through the lunch line they are allowed the following choices: 1 entree which is a choice between 2 hot items, or a ham or turkey sandwich with cheese and lettuce on a dry bun, a peanut butter and jelly (prepackaged) sandwich,or occasionally a spicy chicken wrap, a cup of low-fat plain yogurt parfait with grapes and granola topping, or a 2-cup portion salad (usually a chef salad with a smattering of chopped lunchmeat or a chicken Caesar salad). Condiments are iffy but usually available.

    There is a choice of up to 2 vegetables, usually one hot vegetable choice and maybe a cold vegetable, such as sliced cucumbers or a very small (1/2 cup?) romaine lettuce salad with 1 or 2 cucumber slices and a wedge of tomato.

    There is a choice of 2 fruits. If the child chooses a half-pint juice that is considered one fruit choice. There are usually two whole fruits, such as apples and quartered oranges, and canned fruits such as unsweetened applesauce or diced pears in water. If they choose the yogurt parfait for their entree and a juice they are not allowed another fruit but may choose a vegetable (most don’t).

    The children get their entree, a vegetable (most usually skip the vegetable — though I highly encourage it and try to set a good example even when the vegetables are tasteless, unseasoned, and overcooked, which is nearly always), and a juice and a fruit.

    Just this week I have had four of my 6-year olds in tears over lunch on more than one occasion. Two were crying inconsolably because they were not allowed to get a juice and 2 fruits and they were very hungry. They eventually confessed that they hadn’t eaten anything since lunch the day before. I keep healthy snacks in the classroom in open containers that they are free to take whenever they choose but even at age 6 pride keeps some from admitting their hunger. The other two children were crying because they didn’t care for any of the choices for entree or vegetable and they weren’t allowed to substitute an extra fruit so they knew they would stay hungry. I bought some extra fruits on my tray and gave it to them when we were seated, along with my juice. We are not allowed to “share” food by state law but I am a maverick and make sure kids get what they want as far as I am able. I also pay if any of my kids’ parents forget or are unable to pay for lunch. None of my kids will ever go hungry while in my care!

    This is overlong now so I won’t go into great detail about the breakfast menu — rather bleak by my standards but at least it is free and many of our kids do partake of a choice between a serving of cereal, a whole wheat “donut hole” or pre-packaged breakfast burrito/2 french toast sticks/or 4 mini pancakes. On very rare occasions we have whole wheat biscuits with a breaded chicken patty or a reheated frozen “omelet” (Egg Beaters) with a quarter slice of American low-fat cheese. And bless those cafeteria ladies (I highly respect them all — they are constrained by district and state mandates) 1/2 cup of cheese grits!

    I think it is important to point out that this isn’t just an issue for middle class families who care deeply about their child’s diet and are able to provide abundant healthy food choices but school menus have great impact on many, many poor children who, through no fault of their own and often with no agency to change the situation, end up being pawns in the lunch tray wars.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Brian: Thank you for your kind words re TLT and for sharing your story.

      It’s precisely because so many kids are economically dependent on school meals that I care so much about the issue. If I don’t like what the school is offering I can – and do – send my kids with a nutritious, filling lunch. But far too many kids lack that option.

      I’d like to highlight your comment in a post so more readers will see it.

      • Brian says

        Bettina, I’m humbled and flattered. Feel free to use my comment as you’d like.

        I also want to thank you for your advocacy and fundraising for hungry children. We need more voices speaking up in support of the children.

        Whatever faults their parents may have, whatever failings they encounter in their lives, their children do not deserve to be punished and I am appalled at how many Americans feel perfectly comfortable punishing the children because they sit in judgement of their parents’ lives and how many support political candidates and causes that victimize children. We must stop this horrible trend.

    • Maggie says

      Not good to hear about the negative impact on your students, but good and interesting to hear about the program in your area. Thank you for personally stepping up to help your students.

      Were students allowed to choose more food, different food before the regulation changes? How has this changed with the new regulations?

      While not the main point of your post, I can comment about adult meal prices. Since reimbursement is only paid to schools for meals served to students (the program was established to provide meals to children, not adults), adults pay the actual price/cost of the meal.

      Even students who pay “full” price for meals don’t pay the real/actual cost, there is reimbursement to schools even for “full” price students (not as much as for free or reduced, of course), as well as support in the form of donated foods.

  8. says

    Great perspective, Brian. As unfortunate as it is to hear of the reality in your district, it’s very important that you’re sharing it.

    I REALLY wish we weren’t having this discussion in an election year. If everyone would just put the politics aside for 5 minutes and actually LISTEN to what the knowledgable people on the ground are seeing, we might actually get somewhere…

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Justin: I’m not sure the fact that it’s a presidential election year matters. My other quoted posts on the unfortunate politicization of school food were in response to statements made in non-election years. It seems like a perennial problem.

      • says

        I wasn’t referring to this post as much as the media attention and the overall dialogue. I do think that the fact that we are so close to the election is affecting the conversation. The “left wing” refuses to acknowledge legitimate flaws in the regs and accuses the right of politicizing our children’s future and always fighting against anything the Obama administration puts forward, and the “right wing” isn’t recognizing any of the improvements that were made as a result of the regs and blaming the government for over regulating and not giving the administration an ounce of credit for at least taking on an overhaul of a system that hadn’t seen significant reform in 20 years.

        I would like to think that if it were not an election year, both sides would be conceding at least some points and acknowledging movement in the right direction.

        • Bettina Elias Siegel says

          Well, just for the record, this particular liberal is happy to concede that the new regulations may have flaws. Reports from people like you — and my anonymous school food professional, “Wilma”– clearly indicate that in many ways the new rules are just wrongheaded and get in the way of providing good meals, and I always bow to people actually working with the regulations who would know far better than I.

  9. TOBLER says


    IMO your fundamental assumptions are incorrect though your intentions are good. Straying into politics gets controversial, fast.

    You correctly see all this kerfuffle as political, but fail to see what ‘political’ means and why it’s a problem. As a “liberal” you have great trust in government… and are concerned about “right-wingers”, though they also greatly trust government, but differ on a few specifics. And there are more than just two viewpoints.

    You reflexively assume that “improving the health of American children should be a bipartisan issue” and a rightful job for Federal politicians– but are puzzled why “ food reform and childhood obesity are highly politicized”. You somehow see no contradiction in strongly endorsing the issue as “bipartisan” {i.e., of the two ‘political’ parties/ideologies– Republican/Democrat} — but at the same time decrying the issue as being politicized.

    Also, you subtly attribute any opposition to Obama’s overall ‘Let’s Move’ campaign as either irrational or due to “political animus” toward the Obamas . . . but readily concede the program has flaws and is wrong-headed in some respects. Again, these are contradictory positions.

    Your core statement that “…so many kids are economically dependent on school meals..” is vague, but basically incorrect.

    “Politics” fundamentally is always the relationship of the individual to the state (government). In a free civil society you make the choices about your life and your children’s lives. In a “political” society someone else makes those choices. Thus, ‘choice’ is always the basic political issue in any aspect of society.

    Should you pick your child’s school and what they eat there — or should somebody else decide ? That’s politics !

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says


      1. I didn’t see a line in this post where I said “so many kids are economically dependent upon school meals” but that is certainly a correct statement. 31 million American children received free or reduced price lunches in 2011 due to economic need. Does 31 million not strike you as a significant number?

      2. Yes, any action undertaken cooperatively by the two major political parties in this country is at some level “political” in that it necessarily takes place in the context of a political process. But I’m guessing most readers of this post clearly understood my use of “bipartisan” as meaning, per Merriam Webster: “marked by or involving cooperation, agreement, and compromise between two major political parties.”  That spirit of cooperation is in stark contrast to one party “politicizing” an issue, i.e., exploiting it for political gain.

      3.  I don’t believe the calorie caps (the subject at issue in this post) are flawed; as Brianne DeRosa of Red, Round and Green pointed out on TLT’s Facebook page, the 850 calorie cap for high schoolers would allow for a Big Mac and fries — hardly a spartan lunch.  But yes, you are right that I do question another aspect of the rules. i.e., the weekly grain/meat limits. And I’m certainly willing to concede that there are many folks on the right who similarly take issue with the rules for entirely rational reasons.

      That said, in the media, right wing criticism of the school food regulations rarely examines them in a nuanced way, instead reflexively deriding them as  “nanny state” overreach.  But given that the National School Lunch Program already IS the ultimate nanny state program — a daily, free or reduced price hand-out of food, administered by the federal government — why is merely improving the food served so controversial on the right?    You and I may not ever agree, but I stand by my contention that the involvement of Michelle Obama in this effort has more than a little to do with it.

      • says

        I just want to point out that this is a GREAT dialogue – thanks for providing the forum.

        Any discussion on the issue of politics will always suffer from labels being applied. Republican/Democrat, Right-wing/left-wing, liberal/conservative. We all enter these discussions as Americans first and foremost, and I for one, do not like being labeled. When people ask me “what I am” politically, I respond “I’m a politically independent fiscal conservative who believes regulation and government are necessary, but too many regulations and too much government stifle innovation.”

        The dialogue would be better served if we shattered the idea that people land somewhere on a linear political “spectrum”. Maybe we could use a sphere or something with more dimension to it to better characterize where we all fit in.

  10. Leslie says

    I read this whole debate, and as a Canadian, I’m a bit baffled. Up here, there is no school lunch. Elementary schools don’t generally have cafeterias at ALL (kids usually eat at their desks, supervised by their teacher). High schools have cafeterias, but most kids bring their lunches from home. So I’m baffled that it’s seen as the school’s job to feed the kids. If kids are hungry, why can’t additional food be brought from home for those with bigger appetites? And if parents cannot afford to pack lunches for the kids, shouldn’t there be other programs (i.e., food banks, assistance, food stamps, etc.) to ensure that families have enough to eat. I think that if I were in a position where I couldn’t afford enough food, I would prefer if I could solve the problem on the homefront, making my own decisions (i.e., with welfare $$, or food-specific $$), rather than having those decisions made at a state-wide level. To me, that smacks of nanny-statism (when the state is determining exactly what an entire generation is eating) far more than does caloric restriction.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Leslie: Wow – had no idea! I did a little digging and saw that the idea of a school lunch program in Canada has at least been proposed Is the lack of a school lunch program controversial there or no?

  11. LD says

    I agree whole heartedly with Justin. I, too, hate being labeled, but for lack of a better description of myself like his, I am a conservative. (I guess in your mind, that would automatically make me a “right-winger”) I agree with almost everything you say, from what I have read, on this blog. I have many “conservative” friends who feel the same. I wish you wouldn’t take everything conservative commentators say as how every conservative believes. I back what Michelle Obama is doing, even if it is not done perfectly, and have voiced my opinion on that. I applaud her. I do not think comments like the one above from RedinNC is helpful to this discussion or in getting the two sides together. It is the tone and name-calling and assumptions and lumping everyone together like his/her comment above, that halts dialog and keeps us from working together on issues that are important to many on both sides. Quite frankly, it makes me feel very unwelcome here. I love your blog, but it would be nice if you could think about maybe staying away from infammatory lables like “Right-Winger, so-and-so says…” and the like. Not trying to be a whiner, I’m sure I will get slammed by your readers, but this is an issue I care about too, and it would be nice NOT to feel like the enemy. Thanks!

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      LD: When I used “right wing” above I meant, primarily, right wing media outlets (like Fox et al) and conservative politicians like Rep. Steve King (who, along with at least two other Republicans) is seeking to roll back the school food rules. But of course I recognize that many people who don’t share my political views might still support the current school food reform efforts, and I agree that I didn’t acknowledge that at all in this post. So please forgive me for that. And please also know that you’re NOT the enemy here, nor are you alone. I have readers and commenters of all political stripes and, believe me, they don’t hesitate to take me on if they disagree with me! :-)

  12. bw1 says

    Wow, so much on which to comment:

    “mean that kids who refuse to eat fruits and vegetables now have fewer alternatives to fill them up at lunch.”

    This is simply not true. They have the same number of alternatives as anyone else. What they have is fewer alternatives that they find emotionally gratifying. Their expectation that everything they put in their mouths will tickle the pleasure centers of their brain is their, and their parents’ problem. These kids will become adults, living beyond the reach of the school lunch mandarins, adults who will never eat fruits and vegetables. How healthy will that be?

    ” Republican congressmen seeking to repeal the calorie caps, calling the new regulations “the nanny state personified.””

    And their problem is myopia. They fail to see that the entire program is the nanny state personified. If feeding one’s own children isn’t the very baseline of personal responsibility, what is?

    “that view seems about as rational to me as attacking former First Lady Laura Bush for “meddling in my child’s education””

    That’s a pretty good yardstick for rationality. Whose children are they, anyway? You’ve created a false dichotomy between disagreeing with Mrs. Obama’s meddling/agreeing with Mrs. Bush’s, and disagreeing with both, ignoring the third option of seeing both as inappropriate meddling, especially by someone who wasn’t actually elected.

    “For starters, junk food is cheap and obesity is more common among low-income populations”

    Junk food isn’t cheap, at least in monetary terms. It’s cheap in terms of preparation effort and its value proposition is stronger if your primary metric is how much gratification one gets for their dollar. The problem is not price or availability, it’s the decision calculus of the eater as to what to eat. It’s about impulse control and deferred gratification, values that can only be effectively taught if one is willing to impose a little adversity and emotional dissonance on one’s children. Small wonder the poor make poor food choices and suffer obesity, when race-baiting activists in and out of government are labeling the promotion of deferred gratification as a racist cultural bias.

    “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 what is good parenting, other than taking someone who at birth meets all the criteria for diagnosing a sociopath, and teaching them to cognitively apply principles to restrain “basic human impulse?”

    “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.”

    That won’t be true unless their PARENTS spent the last five years feeding them fruits and vegetables instead of nuggets and fries.

  13. Scott says

    You’re an idiot. Kids across the country especially at risk kids go hungry because they don’t care for menu items offered. Ms. Obama needs to practice what she preaches before imposing it on the innocent. Have you seen the lunch and dinner tabs picked up by the taxpayers for this lady?


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