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House conservatives will try to kill Michelle Obama’s surprisingly successful anti-obesity campaign

But there are aspects of her legacy that won't die.

Michelle Obama did a lot more than plan gardens to fight obesity — and that legacy is in jeopardy.
Tim Sloan/Getty

Michelle Obama has a strikingly successful record of fighting the obesity epidemic and improving nutrition — both symbolically and through legislation.

Back in October, I talked to a bunch of food and nutrition policy wonks about the first lady’s influence on food issues. They offered near-unanimous praise: She planted a garden, waged snappy social media campaigns, and worked behind the scenes with researchers, lawmakers, heads of government departments, schools, and food giants to quietly change what Americans eat.

At the time, it seemed likely that Hillary Clinton would be president, and that the next White House would only build on the current first lady’s legacy.

Now we’re looking at a considerably different future.

We have a president-elect who is a self-proclaimed fast-food lover, and who has appointed a fast-food CEO to his Cabinet. There’s been no sign that Melania Trump is up for digging for carrots in the White House garden.

Donald Trump hasn’t talked much about what he plans to do on food and nutrition policy during his tenure, and he hasn’t yet appointed a new head of the Food and Drug Administration or Department of Agriculture.

Last month, the House Freedom Caucus — a secretive, ultra-conservative faction of Congress — released a list of the Obama administration laws it wants to dismantle starting next year. And it includes several of Michelle Obama’s marquee policies. The next administration probably won’t try to repeal every piece of legislation on the list, as Matt Yglesias explained, but it offers some insights into what kinds of changes to food policy we may see in the next four years.

The list also leaves no question that Michelle Obama’s work on obesity and nutrition is now in jeopardy.

The FLOTUS-inspired nutrition legislation that’s in limbo

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 centered on cleaning up school food. Getting the act passed — and keeping it in place — became a key focus of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign to fight childhood obesity.

The law required the federal government to use recommendations from the Institute of Medicine to make the National School Lunch Program more nutritious, with more whole grains, a wider variety of fruits and vegetables, and less sodium and meat. The law also mandated that schools stop marketing the fat-, sugar-, and salt-laden snacks — like sugary beverages and chocolate bars — in cafeterias and vending machines, and replace those offerings with lower-calorie and more nutritious alternatives like fruit cups and granola bars. Finally, it made it possible for schools that have high poverty rates among students to provide free breakfasts in addition to lunches, without requiring paperwork on whether individual students meet certain poverty criteria.

According to the Freedom Caucus, however, “the regulations have proven to be burdensome and unworkable for schools to implement.” And it recommended that the new nutrition standards for the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs be repealed.

The Freedom Caucus is also targeting the new Nutrition Facts labels, which were scheduled to appear on millions of food packages within two years. The labels are supposed to give consumers long-sought-after information about added sugars in foods — data that health advocates had pressed the food and beverage industry to provide for decades. They’ll also list nutrition information about serving sizes in portions that more accurately reflect how much people eat.

Actually undoing these laws wouldn’t be easy. As of December 2015, the USDA reported that 97 percent of US schools are now meeting the new school nutrition standards. The majority of parents also support the legislation. For these reasons, Sam Kass — the former White House assistant chef whom Michelle Obama hired to be a nutrition policy adviser and executive director of Let’s Move — thinks it’ll be hard for Congress to repeal the legislation.

“At some point, it won’t make sense to expend the capital to put junk food back in schools,” he said.

Sean McBride, a consultant to the food industry in Washington, was also cautiously optimistic about the law’s prospects. “We should expect a vigorous debate about food and nutrition policy in the 115th Congress,” he observed. But efforts to completely dismantle rules and regulations like Nutrition Facts panel and school lunches “are unlikely to succeed given differing views of policymakers and the food industry’s ongoing commitment to provide consumers with healthier products and more transparency,” he added.

Still, Senate and House versions of bills to reauthorize federal child nutrition programs are going through Congress. The House bill would undo many of the new school meal and snack standards, while the Senate Agriculture Committee bill would keep some of those standards intact. If the House bill passes, “it would roll back key provisions of the standards to essentially what they were previously,” said Juliana Cohen, a nutrition professor at the Harvard School of Public Health. And that means rolling back a key part of Obama’s legacy.

The FLOTUS efforts that can't be undone

Some of the most important aspects of Michelle Obama’s childhood obesity efforts were symbolic. In addition to her leadership and behind-the-scenes maneuvering on legislation, the first lady managed to influence food policy and eating habits through her actions — giving America’s food movement a much-needed boost.

Look no further than the White House Kitchen Garden for evidence of that. In 2009, she planted the garden — the first at the residence since Eleanor Roosevelt's victory garden — with the aim of promoting the benefits of fresh and local produce, and getting children to appreciate where their food comes from.

Trump hasn’t said what he’ll do with the garden, but already Obama’s move has inspired others to grow their own food. “We saw homegrown vegetable gardens double in the five years after we planted [the White House garden], and community gardens triple,” Kass said. “The National Garden Association credits her for that uptick.”

Obama championed healthy living and exercise on venues as diverse as Ellen and Elmo. She also worked with the food industry to remove calories from the food supply, increase transparency in their labeling, and create and market healthier food choices for families — efforts that have already had an impact and will continue after the Obama White House.

The Partnership for a Healthier America, which launched in conjunction with (but independent from) the Let’s Move campaign, helped get food companies — such as PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, and General Mills — to commit to cutting calories from the food supply. At the latest count in April, it had already removed 6.4 trillion calories (or 78 calories per person) by reformulating products and shrinking serving sizes.

Another milestone came in June 2015, when the FDA banned trans fats from the food supply within three years. The policy brought the US in line with other countries that have already banned the harmful fat, including Denmark, Austria, Iceland, and Switzerland. And it came long after scientific evidence had mounted for years that these processed unsaturated fats increase the risk for heart attacks and strokes.

It’s difficult to imagine food companies packing calories and trans fat back into their products at a time when American consumers are demanding healthier options. And that's momentum that won't die when Trump moves into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

“Most of the work we’ve done,” Kass said, “is bigger than any one person or bigger than the White House.”

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