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First lady Michelle Obama speaks about children eating healthy food in schools during an event in the East Room at the White House Feb. 25, 2014. 

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

HOUSE BILL COULD HARM EFFORTS TO REDUCE BLACK CHILDHOOD OBESITY 

The News: The House Appropriations Committee passed a measure to roll back school-nutrition guidelines central to Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign against the epidemic of overweight and obese children.

As part of a Republican-authored $21 billion agriculture-spending bill, schools would be allowed to opt out of requirements for food served in the federal free or reduced-lunch program. About 32 million pupils participate in the program each day.

About 17 percent of all children between ages 2 and 19 are overweight. The problem is worst among African-American children, with 36 percent of them in that age group obese. Another 15 percent of them are overweight.

Over the past 30 years, the percentage of obese children ages 6 to 11 has nearly tripled and the share of obese youths 12 to 19 has more than quadrupled.

The White House changed the school-lunch program in 2010 to include more fresh vegetables and fruit, smaller portions and calories, and less sodium.

Republican lawmakers are siding with groups that say schools are struggling to meet the new requirements and are wasting tons of food because students won’t eat it.

The first lady wrote an op-ed article last week objecting to the new bill. Congress could vote on it in a few weeks.

The Take: Since the start of the first lady’s campaign, some Republicans have expressed more concern about the size of Michelle Obama’s backside than the alarmingly round rumps of America’s children.

Guess which states have the highest rates of childhood obesity, affecting at least 20 percent of youths? Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and South Carolina, which are represented in Congress mostly by Republicans.

It doesn’t seem to matter much to the lawmakers that their states have large numbers of poor children who rely on school lunches for nutrition. Or that several of their states, particularly South Carolina and Mississippi, have large populations of African Americans who, because they are the most overweight, have the greatest need for healthier cafeteria food.

Instead, they would rather condemn a plainly necessary and nonpolitical initiative as an overreach of the “nanny state.”

Take Alabama, where more than 26 percent of the population is black and poverty is so widespread that nearly half of all kids participate in the school-lunch program. Alabama children have the 10th-highest obesity rate in the U.S. 

Yet Alabama Rep. Robert Aderholt, chairman of the House Appropriations agriculture subcommittee, is backing a bill that would deprive the children of his state of improved nutrition. Just to give schools an extra 12 months to comply with the nutrition rules, as he argues?

Hardly. Aderholt is bowing to big food companies such as Coca-Cola, Nestle and Kraft that make up the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which has spent millions of dollars fighting efforts such as the junk food-limiting Smart Snacks in Schools standards, so-called state soda taxes and the labeling of genetically modified foods.

Oddly, the public face of opposition to the nutrition standards is a group called the School Nutrition Association, which is composed of nutritionists and cafeteria workers. Why on earth would the people working the lunch line and school nutritionists praise legislation that would slow efforts to bring children healthier food?

Because the group receives funding from the same big food companies, making it essentially a front for the food and beverage lobby.

These companies convinced Congress to protect tomato paste from the new nutrition standards so that manufacturers could continue to cheaply supply pizza to schools.

The lobby has been powerful enough to silence the White House, apparently including Michelle Obama. The administration didn’t stop Congress from killing a plan by four federal agencies to reduce sugar, salt and fat in food marketed to children. And shortly after launching "Let's Move!" the first lady quietly stopped criticizing food-makers and focused on promoting exercise.

Once this bill passes the House, it's unclear if the Senate will stand up to the food-makers.

It is rare for the first lady to wade into politics. Hopefully this time, for the sake of our children, she and the White House won’t back down again.

Corey Dade, an award-winning journalist based in Washington, D.C., writes The Take and is a contributing editor at The Root. He appears on MSNBC and CNN and contributes to NPR. He is a former NPR correspondent and political reporter at the Wall Street Journal. Give him your “take” on Twitter.

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