Still, requirements to put more vegetables into school lunches are only as effective as what Congress (and influential food-industry lobbyists, which more than doubled their spending in Washington over the past three years) will allow. And with Congress passing a bill last year keeping french fries on school menus and allowing tomato paste on pizza to count as a vegetable, the degree to which school nutrition will truly improve remains in question.
Bringing Back Gym Class
The first lady rolled several existing federal health programs into the Let’s Move! campaign, elevating their visibility and challenging more Americans to get involved. One example is the HealthierUS School Challenge, a voluntary USDA-certification program to recognize schools that meet the highest national standards for nutrition and physical activity.
With only 625 HUSSC schools at the time of Let’s Move! launch, the campaign aims to double the number by July 20. Last year’s goal was hit ahead of schedule in June, with the addition of 648 schools that stepped up their nutrition and fitness offerings (with some help from the USDA, which began offering monetary incentives for schools that meet the requirements).
Let’s Move! also set a benchmark of adding 1,000 more HUSSC schools by this July, an objective that it has already exceeded. To meet the requirement of regular physical activity for children, schools found a range of solutions. Washington, D.C.’s River Terrace Elementary School, for instance, has its students walk on a track for 10 minutes each day and started a school walking club. Chicago Public Schools decided to bring back recess for elementary schools next fall and resume physical education for high school juniors and seniors for the 2013-14 school year.
Brian Smedley, vice president and director of the Health Policy Institute of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, told The Root that the HUSSC award money (pdf), which is available until the funds are depleted, should prove especially helpful for cash-strapped schools forced to let physical activity fall to the wayside.
“There are budget pressures on schools, and the schools whose students could benefit the most are the very ones under the tightest budget pressures,” said Smedley. “These kids often face multiple other barriers to the opportunity for good health, often living in neighborhoods with the poorest retail food environment and in communities that are less conducive to exercise and play.”
Wal-Mart Taking on Food Deserts
A distinction that sets Let’s Move! apart from the campaigns of first ladies past is the large-scale commitments that it has received from the private sector. Take Wal-Mart, the world’s largest grocer, which pledged to build 275 to 300 stores in underserved “food deserts,” which don’t have easy access to fresh and healthy foods, by 2016. The company also agreed to reduce the prices of fresh produce for the 140 million customers who already shop at its stores each week and to reformulate thousands of its private-label processed foods for reduced sodium, sugar and trans fats by 2015.
Several other grocers have made similar Let’s Move! commitments to open or expand stores in food deserts, such as Save-a-Lot, SuperValu and Walgreens. But it’s the partnership with Wal-Mart, with its nonunion status and reputation for shutting down local businesses, that has drawn the most controversy. Critics allege that the company is less concerned with combating obesity than with building ever more stores.