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Donald Trump is taking on Michelle Obama's healthy food legacy

3 battlefronts in Trump's effort to make American food unhealthy again.

Michelle Obama Helps Students Harvest White House Kitchen Garden
Michelle Obama in the White House Garden — a lasting tribute to the food movement.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Donald Trump brags about eating fast food. Michelle Obama planted a vegetable garden at the White House. Now it seems Trump is quietly trying to overtake the former first lady’s vision for the future of food in America.

Michelle Obama had a strikingly successful record of fighting the obesity epidemic and improving nutrition — both symbolically and through advocacy for legislation. But many Obama-era efforts to push the food industry in a healthier direction are now under threat.

Over the past couple of weeks, a number of reports have surfaced suggesting that the food industry is trying to capitalize on Trump’s anti-regulation agenda and push back on reforms aimed at making our food supply healthier. The food lobbyists, emboldened by the current White House, are pushing back on recent healthy food and transparency mandates that would hurt their bottom line.

Some of the key battlegrounds — school lunches, food and menu labels — are familiar terrain for anybody who has been observing the efforts to clean up the US food supply. Here’s a quick rundown of what’s been happening, and the top three areas to watch.

1) School lunch standards are under siege — again

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

But the new US Department of Agriculture chief, Sonny Perdue, put announced steps on Monday that’ll give schools more flexibility in meeting federal nutrition standards for school lunches.

To understand what’s changing, we need to grasp what the Obama administration pushed for: It 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, full-fat milk, 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 whose students have high poverty rates to provide free breakfasts in addition to lunches, without requiring paperwork on whether individual students meet certain poverty criteria.

Under Perdue’s USDA, schools will have more wiggle room for interpreting the standards around milk, whole grains, and sodium. Schools can now push back targets to further reduce sodium in lunches for at least three years, serve 1 percent flavored milk again, and get exemptions from having to move to whole-grain products, the Hill reported.

“This announcement is the result of years of feedback from students, schools, and food service experts about the challenges they are facing in meeting the final regulations for school meals,” Perdue said in a USDA statement.

It’s still unclear what this loosening of standards will mean in practice and how schools will interpret them. But health advocates were hopeful that easing up on regulation won’t completely undo the Obama-era reforms.

American Heart Association CEO Nancy Brown pointed out that nearly all US schools are already meeting the new school nutrition standards. The majority of parents also support the legislation. “Improving children’s health should be a top priority for the USDA, and serving more nutritious foods in schools is a clear-cut way to accomplish this goal,” she said in a public statement.

2) The new nutrition labels may be delayed a few years

Also under target are the new Nutrition Facts labels, which were scheduled to appear on millions of food packages by July 2018.

The labels, another effort championed by Michelle Obama, were supposed to give consumers long-sought-after information about added sugars — data that health advocates had pressed the food and beverage industry to provide for decades. They’d also list nutrition information about serving sizes in portions that more accurately reflect how much people eat — in a clearer, easier-to-decipher manner.

Most food companies will be required use this new nutrition label in 2018.

But according to a report from the Washington Post’s Caitlin Dewey, 17 food industry groups — including those behind the juice, dairy, and sweetener industries — have come together to ask Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price to push the compliance date of the new labels back by three years, to 2021.

Their argument? Delaying the mandate will “ease [the] regulatory burden on the economy.” This is no doubt an argument that the Trump administration will understand, and it seems plausible that the long-awaited labeling mandate could be delayed or worse.

3) You’ll need to wait a little longer to see the calories on your favorite restaurant items

Tucked away in the Affordable Care Act were sections of the law that require all restaurants, supermarkets, and convenience store chains to post calorie counts on their menus. The requirements were supposed to take effect on May 5 — but those are being delayed too.

The rules were originally going to be enacted in 2015, and then 2016 — but every deadline has been pushed back so far. Food and restaurant industry groups have lobbied heavily against the requirements, arguing the rules are unduly burdensome and costly to implement, and that they need more time to comply.

According to a new rule on the Federal Register, the May 5 compliance deadline will be pushed back a year, to 2018.

Even so, this is another area where society has moved ahead of the legislation. Many food chains and restaurants — Starbucks, McDonald’s — already post calories on their menus. And delaying the menu labeling mandate won’t undo the progress that’s already underway.

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, Obama planted the garden — the first at the residence since Eleanor Roosevelt's victory garden — to promote the benefits of fresh and local produce and get 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,” said Sam Kass, the former White House assistant chef whom Obama hired to be a nutrition policy adviser and executive director of Let’s Move. “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 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 independently from) the Let’s Move campaign, helped get food companies — such as PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, and General Mills — to commit to cutting calories from their foods. At the latest count in April, the initiative 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 these processed unsaturated fats, which increase the risk for heart attacks and strokes, including Denmark, Austria, Iceland, and Switzerland.

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.

“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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