The White House pushed school lunch reform up a few notches on the agenda this week with the launch of First Lady Michelle Obama’s ambitious campaign to combat childhood obesity.

Michelle Obama article pic.jpgMrs. Obama launched the Let’s Move campaign, which aims to end the challenge of childhood obesity within a generation, from the White House Tuesday before on audience of local DC students, members of Congress, Cabinet secretaries, health advocates, agriculture experts, and members of the press.

One of the core elements of the First Lady’s comprehensive, cross-sector, and interagency initiative is to ensure that the federal school lunch and breakfast programs are serving healthy food.

School Lunches Need to Change

“It’s time for a moment of truth for our country; it’s time we all had a wakeup call,” said Mrs. Obama in her address in the State Dining Room this week. “It’s time for us to be honest with ourselves about how we got here.  Our kids didn’t do this to themselves. Our kids don’t decide what’s served to them at school or whether there’s time for gym class or recess.”

Approximately 31 million American children participate in the federal school meal programs, and many kids consume as many as half their daily calories while at school.

With the Child Nutrition Act up for reauthorization this year, scrutiny over the quality and safety of the food served in the federal nutrition programs has intensified in recent months and Mrs. Obama has become the one of the most high-profile advocates for making serious improvements.

Mrs. Obama wants to increase funding and set nutritional standards so that the federal purchasing programs can buy better food. 

The Administration has requested an additional $10 billion in funding, over the next ten years, to improve food quality, training and upgrade kitchen equipment, and has received commitments from several key private sector food suppliers to improve the nutritional quality of food headed for school lunch trays.

“We’re getting some unprecedented cooperation from the school food suppliers who are ready to step up and play a role in figuring out how do you change the quality of food,” Mrs. Obama told PBS’s Jim Lehrer earlier this week.

While the Let’s Move campaign goals for improving school nutrition were widely praised by health and nutrition advocates, some expressed concerns about the feasibility of the mission.

The most salient concern seems to be over the USDA budget request for the nutrition programs.

School lunch reform advocates had been hoping the Administration would commit $1 per day boost to the $2.36 currently spent per child. The budget reality is closer to a 20 cent increase–enough to add about an apple a day to school lunch.

“I am so optimistic because someone is caring about the next generation and working to make it better,” Ann Cooper, an outspoken advocate for school lunch reform, also known as The Renegade Lunch Lady, told Politico. “Conversely, it’s a huge uphill battle and struggle because I don’t believe the first lady’s campaign is going to mesh easily with the president’s budget and Agriculture Department priorities.”

First Task Force on Childhood Obesity Created

Hours before the First Lady’s official campaign launch on Tuesday, President Obama signed a memorandum in the Oval Office creating the first ever Task Force on Childhood Obesity. The President was joined by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Interior Secretary Ken Salazaar and the First Lady.

The interagency task force has 90 days to review all programs and policies relating to child nutrition and physical activity and then develop and submit to the President a comprehensive interagency plan of action, including specific and concrete benchmarks to measure progress.

The task force will work alongside the Let’s Move campaign to coordinate the Administration’s effort. Mrs. Obama, and the Administration, are making it clear that the campaign is not a new government program, but rather a coordinated effort across sectors.

“Core to the success of this initiative is the recognition that government approaches alone will not solve this challenge,” according to the White House release. “Achieving the goal will require engaging in partnerships with States, communities, and the non-profit and for-profit private sectors.”

In addition to working to improve school lunches, the campaign has three other core components: helping parents make healthy choices, improving access to healthy, affordable food and increasing physical activity.

For information on the campaign, visit

Photo by Obama Foodorama.

Watch First Lady Michelle Obama’s remarks at the Let’s Move launch here: