U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama has proven to be a formidable opponent to Republicans and food business interests in her campaign for American schools to provide healthier lunches, but her dreams of kids eating more vegetables, fruit and whole grains in school may not be realized.
Laws governing school lunch standards are up for debate in the Senate this month, and because most companies supplying food to schools have gone as far as they will go, it looks like there will not be support for more stringent rules governing school lunch nutrition requirements, even though some companies have found providing healthier food options has been profitable.
The U.S. school lunch market is worth an estimated $10 billion annually.
The first lady lobbied heavily for The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act which was introduced in 2010 to provide healthier school lunches. She and the Act have been heavily criticised by Republicans who call it government interference.
Mrs Obama has made it clear she would like to see more fruit, vegetables, grains and fat free milk as legally required options, but experts say it is very unlikely this will happen.
Vice president of the education division at foodservice distribution company KeyImpact Sales & Systems, Gary Vonck, said “I think a large percentage doesn’t want to change at all. I think they feel like they’ve gone through all the changes they need to go through to follow the rules.”
The director of the Safe and Healthful Kids Food project at the Pew Charitable Trusts Jessica Donze Black, said food companies felt they had adapted to healthier food regulations already and so “it would probably be a mess if the pipeline changed dramatically. I think for some manufacturers, it’s been a great opportunity.”
The House Education and the Workforce Committee is reportedly drafting a new bill aimed at giving schools more flexibility in what they serve for lunches even though The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and other experts says since the Act was introduced, studies have shown school children are generally eating healthier than they did previously.
Some school lunch providers like Schwan's that were against the healthier school lunch initiative, have found they can actually make money by providing healthier food options. Schwan's' reduced-sodium Big Daddy's pizza, reduced-fat Doritos and whole-grain rich Pillsbury breakfast cinnamon rolls are selling like hot cakes.
Pizza empire Domino’s has found that since entering the healthier school lunch market, it's been nothing but good news. The company entered the K-12 school food market because of opportunities that came with nutrition requirement laws. It developed the whole grain, lower sodium, lower fat Smart Slice just for school cafeterias and expects it will be sold in 5,000 schools in 44 states this coming school year.
Yet despite the success and capitulation by many school lunch providers there seems to be little willingness to extend the gains made to date.