White House Garden Grows; School Lunch Budget Shrinks

Michelle Obama replanted the White House organic garden yesterday, but financial support for healthy school lunches hasn't taken root.
by Marian Burros

March 31, 2010

Michelle Obama, USDA secretary Tom Vilsack, and HHS secretary Nancy Sebelius, welcomed school kids to the White House garden.

RODALE NEWS, WASHINGTON, DC—It was a picture-perfect day for the first lady to replant the White House garden, with help from local elementary school children, her chief of staff, and a couple of cabinet secretaries, as well as members of the White House kitchen staff.


The garden is 400 square feet bigger than it was last year, and it has added four new spring vegetables. It, too, is picture-perfect.

The planting of the White House garden last year was the beginning of Michelle Obama’s crusade to reduce childhood obesity in a generation. Two months ago she announced her initiative, Let’s Move, to make it happen. She’s asked everyone, from the Grocery Manufacturers Association and American Beverage Association to the American Academy of Pediatrics and the School Nutrition Association, to help, and they’ve all signed on.

But there’s a seemingly ignored elephant in the room—or the garden, if you will: money.

More on getting healthy food into your child's school lunch program:
First Lady Calls for Better School Food
First Lady Announces $40,000 Contest
Renegade Lunch Lady Says Schools Are Giving Kids Diabetes
Without Gardens, Schools Lack Some Important Lessons

THE DETAILS: One of the cornerstones of Let’s Move is the importance of improving the nutritional quality of the food children are served in school, particularly the addition of more fruits and vegetables to their menus and the reduction on fat, sugar, and salt. Mrs. Obama mentioned that to the children who worked with her in the garden yesterday, asking, “We’ve also even started talking to schools about how do we make your school lunches even more healthy, right?" But fruits and vegetables are more expensive than fried foods and bologna sandwiches, so making school lunches and breakfasts more healthful costs money.

Not quite everyone has gotten that message, or if they have, they either don’t understand the economics or have chosen to ignore them. The Obama Administration had asked for $10 billion over 10 years for child nutrition. Sounds like a lot, but some of that money does not go to school meals but to other feeding programs for the poor. So the amount of additional money for each school lunch would be less than 20 cents a day, possibly as little as 11 cents. Which is far less than the School Nutrition Association had asked for—35 cents—and much less than the additional $1 that others believe is necessary to make school meals nutritious.

The Senate Agriculture Committee passed the Child Nutrition Reauthorization 2010 on March 24, but with the $10 billion reduced to $4.5 billion, or about 6 cents per day for each child.

The federal reimbursement rate—money that the federal government gives to schools for lunches—has not changed since 1973, except for inflation adjustments: it's $2.68 cents per lunch per day. After taking out overhead costs, schools have only about $1 per meal left to spend on food. Is an additional 6 cents per lunch really going to make a difference?

WHAT IT MEANS: To achieve a nutritional game-changer for America's children, the White House itself is going to have to work a little harder to get more money, according to Ferd Hoefner, policy director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. Because the money for school meals must come from cuts in other programs, it’s up to the White House to say where those cuts can be made. “Normally the White House tells them where it thinks the money could come from,” he said. “[Senate Agriculture Committee chair Blance] Lincoln asked for more, but the White House came up with only $4.5 billion."

Hoefner thinks the power of the first lady to draw people to her cause could be enough to increase funding. “I think her whole initiative helped get this bill through the Senate Ag Committee unanimously,” he says. “I think she’s had an effect." And, as he points out, it's not a controversial issue. "No one in their right mind is going to vote against school lunch," he says. "She’s obviously getting people interested in this issue. She can excite a lot of people and make them pay attention." Nevertheless, the ball is in the administration's court. “Somebody’s got to say this means a lot to the White House.”

And maybe that’s Michelle Obama.