How Michelle Obama won over Mississippi on school lunches

First lady Michelle Obama and Food Network chef Rachel Ray discuss lunches with students from the Eastside and Northside Elementary Schools during a "Let's Move!" program at the Clinton, Miss., schools Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013. The pair visited with the children and conducted a cooking contest between the schools' chefs. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

First lady Michelle Obama and Food Network chef Rachel Ray discuss lunches with students from the Eastside and Northside Elementary Schools during a "Let's Move!" program at the Clinton, Miss., schools Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013. The pair visited with the children and conducted a cooking contest between the schools' chefs. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Clinton, Miss. – In a country that in recent years has become almost defined by political polarization, it’s hard to imagine more unexpected partners than the deeply red state of Mississippi and Michelle Obama.

And yet, it was Mississippi that early on embraced the first lady’s ideas about healthy food, and was the site where Mrs. Obama kicked off a two day, three-city tour touting the three-year anniversary of her “Let’s Move” initiative, which encourages kids to get and stay fit.

Conservatives like Sarah Palin have attacked Mrs. Obama for her White House garden, her admonition to parents to feed their kids healthy snacks rather than fat-filled sweets, and her star-crossed alliances with pop superstar Beyonce Knowles, and even the Academy Awards. Yet when it comes to Mrs. Obama’s quest to put healthy food on the lunch tables of the country’s school children, Mississippi is very much on board.

Obesity rates in the U.S. have tripled over the last thirty years, with 1 in 3 school kids either overweight or obese as of 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The numbers are even worse for black and Latino children, among whom four in ten are overweight or obese.

Mississippi ranks highest of all the states in adult and childhood obesity, with fully one third of residents being overweight.

Mrs. Obama arrived in Clinton, Mississippi Wednesday to congratulate the state on its progress in beginning to reverse those dire statistics, and to tout the early successes of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which she championed in 2010 with culinary TV Rachel Ray.

The Act, which passed with rare bipartisan support during the lame duck session that followed the Tea Party wave election in 2010, increased federal funding for school lunches by $4.5 billion — the first increase for the Department-of-Agriculture-administered program in 30 years. Under its provisions, schools are reimbursed an extra 6 cents per meal by the federal government for every school lunch they serve that meets nutrition standards that the White House says have been revised for the first time in 15 years. Schools were given a year to implement the plan, and many began rolling it out during the 2012-2013 school year.

There were some fights following passage in crafting the nutrition standards as members of congress sought to grandfather items like french fries and pizza into the nutrition standards in the interests of their states’ farm products, like potatoes and tomatoes. But the administration was able to get compromise even there — pizza is OK by the new standards, so long as it is made with whole wheat crust and other healthy ingredients.

“In 2004, empirical research was conducted showing 43 percent of Mississippi elementary school children were either overweight or obese,” Dr. Lynn House, Mississippi’s Interim State Superintendent told a room full of law and policy makers at Northside/Eastside Elementary, a racially-diverse pairing of two schools that share facilities in Clinton, before Mrs. Obama was introduced by Emma Scott, a local eighth grader. House said the state recognized that something had to be done “to ensure the health of our children but also for our state.”

“If we continued on that same trajectory that we saw in 2004,” House said, then “by 2030, 65 percent of Mississippians alive at that time would either be overweight or obese.” And so the state, under the state’s Republican then-governor, Haley Barbour, partnered with a local organization, the Bauer Foundation, and secured commitments from local school boards and school districts across the state to implement new nutrition standards for Mississippi schools.

Both Ray and Mrs. Obama extolled the results, which include a 13.3 percent drop in overweight and obesity rates among elementary school students between 2005, when Mississippi began its reforms, and 2011. They applauded the school administrators and the lunchroom staff who worked hard to make good, healthy food available to the state’s kids.

“A lot of people thought childhood obesity was just an impossible problem,” Mrs. Obama said. “Under the leadership of your former governor, your state had already started to step up, to implement healthier eating programs, setting new standards for food and drinks and vending machines.”

“They replaced their fryers with steamers, hallelujah!” the first lady cheered, “and they started serving more vegetables and whole grains. With all of those people stepping up, the results of those efforts speak for themselves.”

With that, Mrs. Obama headed into the school’s cafeteria, to the elated cheers of hundreds of second through fifth graders, for a “cafeteria cookoff” — pitting one lunch lady from each of the two schools, paired with celebrity chefs from Ray’s show, to cook unique recipes that would be judged by 20 of the kids, along with Ray and the First Lady. The contest will air on Ray’s Food Network show in March.

The trip illustrated not just the success of the nutrition and fitness guidelines — which the White House says are already improving obesity rates among the 32 million U.S. children who participate in the National School Lunch program, with more than 5,000 schools already meeting the 2012 and 2013 standards — but also the success Michelle Obama has had in using her brand to transcend traditional politics.

There was none of the partisan resistance to the federal nutrition standards that plagued healthcare reform. In many ways, states had little reason to quarrel with an idea that politicians on both sides of the aisle agree improves student performance and attendance, graduation rates in the long term, and ultimately the state’s economy, given the onerous costs of treating growing numbers of people with obesity-related diseases, such as diabetes. But the idea of federal standards for schools has been controversial in Republican-led states; in areas of education reform, for instance.

And yet the school lunch standards are being rolled out in states as diverse as Mississippi, California and New York, with several states following Mississippi’s lead by acting well before the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The White House says school districts are crafting innovative programs that bring celebrity chefs to schools, reducing the calorie content of meals, and even planting roof gardens, so that kids can take pride in eating food they’ve helped to grow.

As the first lady’s motorcade coasted through Clinton, small clumps of onlookers stood by the side of the road and waved. Some held small American flags, or balloons.

At the school, one local man who has a child at the school said he knew a parent or two who kept their kids at home on Wednesday out of what he called “ridiculous partisanship.” He himself is a Republican, but said that while he disagrees with the Obamas’ politics, he likes the first lady’s nonpartisan approach to issues few can argue with — like feeding kids healthy food.

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