Monday, December 13, 2010

As President Signs Child Nutrition Bill Into Law, First Lady Cites It As Crucial Help For Parents

Parents are responsible for kids' food choices, but they "have a right to expect that their kids will be served fresh, healthy food that meets high nutritional standards," First Lady says during special bill signing ceremony at DC school
UPDATE, Jan. 13, 2011: New nutrition standards unveiled
Calling the $4.5 billion Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act "vitally important to the health and welfare of our kids and to our country," President Obama, with First Lady Michelle Obama by his side, today signed the legislation into law during a special ceremony at Washington, DC's Harriet Tubman Elementary School. (Above: The President and First Lady at the signing ceremony)

The President and First Lady each made remarks, touting the critical impact of the bill for everything from ensuring that kids grow up free of diet-related diseases to educational achievement and global competitiveness to boosting national security. Both defended the bill from recent criticism that it is the latest example of government invading the lives of private citizens. (The President, mid-signature)

"At a very basic level, this act is about doing what’s right for our children," President Obama said.

"Many children get up to half their daily calories from school meals," Mrs. Obama said. "It’s clear that we as a nation have a responsibility to meet as well. I think that parents have a right to expect that their efforts at home won’t be undone each day in the school cafeteria or in the vending machine in the hallway."

"It is worth noting that this bill passed with bipartisan support in both houses of Congress," President Obama said. "That hasn’t happened as often as we’d like over the last couple of years."

The US House of Representatives passed the legislation by a vote of 264 to 157 on December 2; the Senate passed it by unanimous consent in August. It reauthorizes the Child Nutrition Act through 2015.

"Every day across this country, parents are working as hard as they can to make healthy choices for their kids," President Obama said. "And it’s time that we made that work a little bit easier."

The bill is the legislative centerpiece of Mrs. Obama's Let's Move! campaign to end childhood obesity in a generation, and impacts more than 31 million children who participate in the federal feeding programs, as well as dramatically improves the foods that can be served in schools across the nation. The First Lady has exhaustively championed the legislation, and it's a concrete outcome of her Let's Move! campaign, though the initiative has not yet hit its one-year anniversary. The bill is also "a moving reminder that the most important job of any President is to ensure the well-being of our nation’s children," Mrs. Obama said.

>Read the White House fact sheet about the bill [PDF]

"Right now, across the country, too many kids don’t have access to school meals. And often, the food that’s being offered isn’t as healthy or as nutritious as it should be," President Obama said, laying part of the blame for the nation's overweight/obesity rate of about one in three American children on the foods they eat at school.

"We’re seeing this problem in every part of the country in kids from all different backgrounds and all walks of life," President Obama said. "When our kids walk into the lunchroom, we want to be sure that they’re getting balanced, nutritious meals that they need to succeed in the classroom."

The Tubman auditorium was draped in presidential blue, and rippled with excitement as the audience of about 150, including lawmakers, Cabinet Secretaries, child health advocates, students, and parents, applauded frequently as the President and First Lady each spoke.

The President and Mrs. Obama were surrounded on stage by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), Rep. George Miller (D-CA), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark), who authored the original legislation, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), and Rep. Todd Platts (R-PA), all of whom have worked tirelessly for the bill, through months of battles to get it passed. The President and First Lady thanked all profusely. Platts, despite the lauding of bipartisanship, was the only GOP member on stage.

"Now, usually, we hold these bill signings in the White House," Mrs. Obama said. "But we felt it was important to do this one right here at Tubman Elementary because we wanted to share this moment with our partners--with the students, the parents, the teachers, the community leaders, like all of you here, who have been so instrumental."

A massive coalition of supporters came together to make the bill a reality, Mrs. Obama pointed out, working behind the scenes, long into the night and over many weekends. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 is without question the most groundbreaking child nutrition legislation to emerge from this or any other administration in decades, with an emphasis on fruit and vegetables, whole grains, lower sugar and salt content in foods, and reduced and low fat dairy products. (Above: Mrs. Obama thanks the crowd)

>The White House released a sample menu of what school lunch meals look like now, and how they'll look under the new healthier guidelines

Noting that the legislation is fully paid for, the President reminded all that it will help connect schools with local farmers, encourage school gardens, help an additional 115,00o more children receive meals at schools, and improve school food safety.

Tubman is located in the District's Columbia Heights neighborhood, and is something of a model for the kind of school that will be overwhelmingly impacted by the bill. It has about 440 students in grades PK-5, with 90% receiving free or reduced price meals. Enrollment is 50% Hispanic, and 46% African American. And yes, Tubman has a school garden, something the Healthy-Hunger-Free Kids Act promotes. The school has been adopted by White House Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford, Senior Policy Adviser for Healthy Food Initiatives Sam Kass, and Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses as part of the Chefs Move to Schools initiative, a crucial component of Mrs. Obama's Let's Move! campaign.

Kass, dressed in formal chefs whites, watched his bosses speak from the back of the room, joined by Top Chef host Tom Colicchio, who testified before Congress in support of the legislation. Colicchio also featured Kass as a guest judge on a special episode of this season's Top Chef, about, naturally, school lunches. After the ceremony, Colicchio was beset by swooning fans, seeking autographs and photos. He graciously signed, and posed.

Government can't do it all, but we can't just leave it up to parents, First Lady says
Mrs. Obama spent much time directly addressing the criticism that the bill is government overreach, an example of an invasion into the private lives of citizens through their dinner plates.

"We know that ensuring that kids eat right and stay active is ultimately the responsibility of parents more than anyone else," Mrs. Obama said.

But she pointed out that doctors and nurses, business and labor leaders, members of the food industry, health advocates, faith leaders, and military leaders all support the bill.

"Now, these folks come at this issue from all different angles," Mrs. Obama said. "And let’s be clear: These folks don’t just support this bill as leaders and as professionals, but as parents as well."

Then she hit home the overriding theme of the Let's Move! campaign: While parents are the front line of defense for child health, and especially for children's food choices, Government can't do it all. Government can and must help, Mrs. Obama said.

"We can’t just leave it up to the parents," Mrs. Obama said. "I think that our parents have a right to expect that their kids will be served fresh, healthy food that meets high nutritional standards."

The legislation provides for plenty of parent information frameworks, from early childhood nutrition education to encouraging schools to create websites and post menus online, as well as calorie counts in cafeterias. It also makes parents' jobs far easier, by removing unhealthy foods from all areas of schools during the academic day, including in vending machines and a la carte lines. Contrary to what you may have read in various media outlets, the bill will NOT ban school bake sales.

Improving school foods as a way to re-ensure America's position as a global super power...
The President also made the larger point that America's educational achievement and success as a world power is dependent on the bill.

"We’ve seen the connection between what our kids eat and how well they perform in school," President Obama said. "We need to make sure our kids have the energy and the capacity to go toe to toe with any of their peers, anywhere in the world."

According to a recent Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report, which compares the knowledge and skills of 15-year-olds in 70 countries around the world, the United States ranks 14th out of 34 OECD countries for reading skills, 17th for science and a below-average 25th for mathematics.

The First Lady echoed the theme of global achievement.

"We know that the success of our nation tomorrow depends on the choices we make for our kids today," Mrs. Obama said. "We can all agree that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, all children should have the basic nutrition they need to learn and grow and to pursue their dreams."

"Our hopes for their future should drive every single decision that we make," Mrs. Obama added.

In a light moment, the President hailed the bill as a legacy of President Harry S. Truman, and added that "I’m very proud to sign this bill that continues that legacy."

"Not only am I very proud of the bill, but had I not been able to get this passed, I would be sleeping on the couch," President Obama joked, to much laughter.

"We won't go into that," Mrs. Obama said. "Don’t have to go down that road."

"All kidding aside, my husband worked very hard to make sure that this bill was a priority in this session. And I am grateful to you," the First Lady said. As they swapped positions at the podium, the First Couple kissed. No couch time for President Obama.

The SNAP issue: Presidential pledge to restore funding
The President was also careful to mention that the bill will not impact SNAP (Food Stamp) program funding, which over the summer became a sticking point for Democrats.

"It’s also important to note that while this bill is fully paid for, it won’t add a dime to the deficit, some of the funding comes from rolling back a temporary increase in food stamp benefits –- or SNAP as it’s now called -– starting in the fall of 2013," President Obama said. "I know a number of members of Congress have expressed concerns about this offset being included in the bill, and I’m committed to working with them to restore these funds in the future."

The bill gets signed...
And then it was time to sign the bill. In addition to the lawmakers and Cabinet Secretaries, two kids were on stage with the President and First Lady. Seventh grader Tammy Nguyen is an old hand at Let's Move! events; she is an alum of Bancroft Elementary School, the first school to partner in Mrs. Obama's South Lawn Kitchen Garden, and she also introduced Mrs. Obama to the crowd when the First Lady launched Let's Move! in February of 2010. Tubman third grader Luis Avelar-Turcios received a special joke from the President, as he actually signed the bill. The President used eleven different pens. (Above: The President signs the bill)

There was cheering and applause as the President finished signing the bill. He shook hands with students, parents and lawmakers when he finished, as did Mrs. Obama. The entire school--and the neighborhood around the school--was thrilled with the presence of the First Couple.

What's the time frame for the changes in America's schools?
The rule making process for the legislation will "start immediately," Sec. Vilsack said during a conference call today following the bill signing. (Above: A long shot of the bill signing ceremony)

"We're working as expeditiously as possible to get this legislation into action," Vilsack said.

The new nutritional guidelines for schools will be based on the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which are reviewed every five years. The 2010 guidelines will be released shortly.

Lauds from advocates...
Following the bill signing, the White House released a document with quotes from a wide range of high-profile child health and nutrition advocates and experts, celeb chefs and Cabinet Secretaries, including Mike Huckabee, the former Republican Governor of Arkansas 1996-2007; Bestselling food writer Michael Pollan; chefs Cat Cora, Tom Colicchio, and José Andrés; military brass, and public health advocates. Read the statements here. Mrs. Obama lauded the passage of the bill, too.

“Congratulations to First Lady Michelle Obama, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and to the bi-partisan support in the Congress to pass the Healthy, Hunger Free Children Act," Huckabee said, the most high-profile member of the GOP on the list. "By passing a bill that addresses the nutritional quality of school lunches, an important step is being taken to give children choices that will make them healthier and more productive.”

Huckabee is currently running an aggressive campaign against "Obamacare," but he's a big fan of the First Lady. Mrs. Obama appeared on Huckabee's self-monikered show on Fox News last February. Former US Senator Bill Frist (R-TN) is the other high-profile member of the GOP who weighs in on the White House laud list.

>The full transcript of the President and First Lady's remarks is here.

What the bill will do...
The bill increases by six cents the reimbursement rate for school meals for the first time since 1973, and for the first time allows the Secretary of Agriculture to set uniform guidelines for all foods sold during the school day. These will be based on the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which will be released shortly. These are updated every five years. Here are the basic elements of the bill:

Improves nutrition and focuses on reducing obesity
*Gives USDA the authority to set nutritional standards for all foods regularly sold in schools during the school day, including vending machines, the “a la carte” lunch lines, and school stores.

*Provides additional funding to schools that meet updated nutritional standards for federally-subsidized lunches. This is an historic investment, the first real reimbursement rate increase in over 30 years.

*Helps communities establish local farm to school networks, create school gardens, and ensures that more local foods are used in the school setting.

*Builds on USDA work to improve nutritional quality of commodity foods that schools receive from USDA and use in their breakfast and lunch programs.

*Expands access to drinking water in schools, particularly during meal times.

*Sets basic standards for school wellness policies including goals for nutrition promotion and education and physical activity, while still permitting local flexibility to tailor the policies to their particular needs.

*Promotes nutrition and wellness in child care settings through the federally-subsidized Child and Adult Care Food Program.

*Expands support for breastfeeding through the WIC program.

Increases Access for eligible children
*Increases the number of eligible children enrolled in school meal programs by approximately 115,000 students by using Medicaid data to directly certify children who meet income requirements.

*Helps certify an average additional 4,500 students per year to receive school meals by setting benchmarks for states to improve the certification process.

*Allows more universal meal access for eligible students in high poverty communities by eliminating paper applications and using census data to determine school-wide income eligibility.

*Expands USDA authority to support meals served to at-risk children in afterschool programs.

Increases Program Monitoring and Integrity
*Requires school districts to be audited every three years to improve compliance with nutritional standards.

*Requires schools to make information more readily available to parents about the nutritional quality of meals.

*Includes provisions to ensure the safety of school foods like improving recall procedures and extending hazard analysis and food safety requirements for school meals throughout the campus.

*Provides training and technical assistance for school food service providers.

>Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack & Senior Policy Adviser For Healthy Food Initiatives Sam Kass answer questions about the legislation

*Top photo by Pete Souza/White House; large photo of Mrs. Obama and bottom bill signing photo by Lawrence Jackson/White House; others via Getty/pool. White House video.