First Lady Presses Congress For School Nutrition Reform

The fight against childhood obesity and its causes has been a cause championed by first lady Michelle Obama. Now she is calling on the U.S. House of Representatives to take up legislation that would dramatically reform the nutrition standards of foods sold in the nation's schools. To get a sense of what this legislation entails, host Michel Martin speaks with Margot Wootan director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

It's time for our weekly moms conversation. Now, normally we hear from the moms for their practical advice on important issues. But today we're going to do something a little different. We're going to hear from three experts about a topic that is much in the news and of great concern to parents these days, mainly nutrition. And I'm talking about way more than just telling kids to eat their veggies. In a moment we'll hear about how New York City is trying to tackle childhood obesity. Despite some aggressive moves by city officials, too many school kids there are still overweight.

But first though, we want to learn more about how childhood obesity and hunger are being addressed in Congress. Earlier this month the Senate passed its version of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. That's a piece of legislation that would, among other, things completely rewrite the nutrition standards for all food sold in schools. And, yes, that does mean goodies from the vending machines.

Here with me to talk about that pending legislation is Margot Wooten. She's the director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Her group helped provide input to the White House in the creation of a plan to help end childhood obesity. And she's with us now in our Washington, D.C. studios. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

Ms. MARGOT WOOTEN (Director of Nutrition Policy, Center for Science in the Public Interest): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: You know, it seems as though childhood obesity has been on the rise for some time - and I think this is something that people can see. You can see it on the playground, you could just see it traveling around the country. But what is it about the current climate that creates such urgency around this issue, do you think?

Ms. WOOTEN: It's definitely a personal and a family problem, but it's also become a societal problem because right now a third of children are either overweight or obese and that puts them at risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, very expensive diseases that will affect them for a lifetime. So this is affecting businesses with high health care costs. It's affecting governments with high Medicare and Medicaid costs. This has become a national health crisis.

MARTIN: And one of the things that the first lady, Michelle Obama, who's taken this issue on in a very visible way has pointed out it's also a national security issue because a number of potential recruits to the military can't pass the physical in part because of weight issues. Speaking of Michelle Obama, she is of course, as we said, been very visible on this issue. I just want to play a short clip from an appearance that she made last week in Louisiana at Brock Elementary School in Slidell. It's a school that's received a gold distinction from the Department of Agriculture for food and nutrition programs. Here's what the first lady had to say.

Ms. MICHELLE OBAMA: Your success in the Healthier U.S. Schools Challenge is a wonderful example. Through this challenge, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recognizes schools that are doing the very best work to keep kids healthy. And that includes providing everything from healthy school meals to insuring that kids are getting regular gym classes. And as a winner of the Gold Award of Distinction, which is the highest honor that the USDA awards, Brock Elementary is among the very best of the best. And that's a major distinction.

(Soundbite of applause)

MARTIN: Okay, so we talked about the first lady talking about gym classes. I think those are things that people will, you know, understand the importance of, but tell us what else - what this legislation would do and why you think it's important.

Ms. WOOTEN: You know what's brilliant about the first lady's approach is not only does she, you know, provide a good role model as a mother - and she talks about how this is tough for us in our individual lives, but she also recognizes that this is a societal problem. It's not enough to just wag your finger at moms and say, feed your kids better. We also have to have healthy foods in schools because that's where our kids are eating a third to a half of their calories. So one - she has this national plan to address childhood obesity.

One of the best ways to implement many of her recommendations is through the Child Nutrition Reauthorization.

MARTIN: What will it do? Tell us about the bill.

Ms. WOOTEN: So it will help to get junk food out of school vending machines, which is something that we've been working on for about three decades and really needs to be done. It's hard to have healthy kids if you're sending them the message that it's okay to eat candy and drink soda at schools. And those foods compete with the school lunch programs. So the kids could use their lunch money to have a couple slices of pizza and a Gatorade instead of a balanced meal. So it makes it harder to serve healthy meals. So that's historic change that's in both the House and the Senate bill.

There are also a number of provisions to try to improve the meals themselves. There's more training and technical assistance, higher standards for the food service workers, for the lunch ladies who are cooking and planning these meals.

There's more money. It's not as much money as some schools would like but this is the biggest increase to the reimbursement rates for the school lunch program in decades.

MARTIN: Well, what do you say to those who - well, first of all, the number of schools use these vending machines as fundraising devices. They say, you know, that would be great. I'd love to take the vending machines out, but this is, in part, how we pay for instruments and, you know, music classes and things that you also feel that are - parents also feel are important. What would you say to that?

Dr. WOOTAN: You know, a decade ago, when I started working to get junk put out of schools, I used to say we have to do this anyway. You might lose money but it's worth it. But now what weve found is as more and more schools have gotten rid of the soda and the candy bars, they can make money anyway. The kids are thirsty, the kids are hungry and they buy the healthier options in the vending machine. Also, more of them get the school lunch, which is actually better for the kids health and better for the school financially. Because then not only do they get the kids lunch money, but they also get reimbursements from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. So studies are showing that schools make just as much money selling healthier foods.

MARTIN: And talk about the school lunch. I mean the school lunch, of course, has been an object of ridicule since - I dont know, whenever. I mean, it's a regular feature in movies about kid life.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: About how school lunch is just, you know, hasnt - I dont know, has there ever been a time when anybody thought the school lunch was great? But there are schools that are older, for example, that dont have kitchens where hot food can be prepared or healthy food can be prepared. Some people talked about the difficulty of getting fresh fruits and vegetables in there or presenting large quantities of food in any one time. So what does the bill do to make sure that school lunch is actually worth eating, palatable and healthy?

Dr. WOOTAN: Well, school lunches have an image problem. But they have been getting better. USDA has been providing help to schools, like through this HealthierUS Schools Challenge, that Mrs. Obama is heading up. What schools need is more money, and so that's in the bill. But they also need help. They need to learn from the schools that have made changes and are feeding kids, not only foods that are healthy but that taste good and that are appealing.

You know, kids are so used to going out to eat. You know, can't just throw slop on a tray. You know, they want this to be attractive and presented to them in a way that looks good. They need to change the cafeteria environment, to make it more pleasant. They need to give kids enough time to eat. So there are a number of ways that would increase the resources, the training, the technical assistance, to help schools serve healthier meals.

MARTIN: And we recognize, finally that you are an advocate and you do have a particular point of view about this. But - and still, I think that that's obvious. But I would like to ask, what else do you think needs to be done beyond this bill? You feel that this bill is an important step and it advances the goals that youve been working on for a long time. But is there something else that you feel needs to be done? If youre - I'm giving you the magic wand; youre straightening this thing right now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: What do you think would make the biggest difference?

Dr. WOOTAN: Some of the other things that's in the national action plan and that weve been working are, getting companies to stop marketing junk food to kids, not only on Saturday morning TV, but in schools, on the Internet, on the product packaging. We can't be cultivating kids to eat a diet that's going to cause them to be overweight, get heart disease and have diabetes.

MARTIN: And what constitutes junk food in your view?

Dr. WOOTAN: Well, we actually have laid out a set of nutrition standards. Right now, 13 companies, the biggest food manufacturers in the country have set nutrition standards for what they will and won't market to kids. What we need is stronger nutrition standards and right now those are stalled. There's the Federal Trade Commission is working with a few other agencies, and they need to get those nutrition standards out and companies need to follow them so that only healthy foods are marketed to kids.

MARTIN: So your argument is there needs to be standards about what is junk food. It's not just going to be just an arbitrary argument.

Dr. WOOTAN: Right. And the Federal Trade Commission is developing those standards right now.

MARTIN: Margo Wootan is director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. She was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Thank you so much for joining us.

Dr. WOOTAN: Thanks for having me.

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