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Michelle Obama Lobbies Congress Over School Lunch Program


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne. President Obama is having a group of teachers over for lunch today. The White House is characterizing the session as part of an effort to ensure that every student is taught by an effective educator. And it's not just the president trying to engage over the well-being of America's children. First Lady, Michelle Obama, is actively lobbying Congress on the details of a school lunch program. These White House efforts come even as Congress remains gridlocked over early childhood education and just about every other issue it faces this year. Joining us now, as she does most Mondays, is Cokie Roberts. Good morning.


MONTAGNE: So the first lady has been tangling with the Republican House over a bill called the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. What is that all about?

ROBERTS: Well, that was a bill passed in 2010 with the first lady's support. It's designed to make school lunches healthier - less sugar, fat, salt in the food - provide more fruits, vegetables, et cetera - part of that big effort pushed by Mrs. Obama to reduce the epidemic of childhood obesity in this country. But the Government accounting office has issued a report that more than a million kids dropped out of the program since the changes went into effect and that there's a tremendous amount of waste as the kids throw out fruits and vegetables. Now there are also some food lobbyists opposing the changes. So the bill, which would refinance the program, which is scheduled to come up in the house now in this post-July 4 period, allows school districts to apply to skip the healthy food requirements for a year.

MONTAGNE: So where does Mrs. Obama come into all of this?

ROBERTS: Well, she opposes that. She opposes the move to delay implementation. And she wrote an op-ed for the New York Times, really coming out against what was going on in the House of Representatives. And it was somewhat snarky, saying, you know, remember when Congress declared that the sauce on a slice of pizza should count as a vegetable in school lunches? Now, I have to tell you, Renee, I actually don't remember that. I do remember, during the Reagan years, the White House declaring ketchup as a vegetable.


ROBERTS: And Republican Senator John Heinz - he - of the 57 varieties - saying no, actually, it's not a vegetable. But the point is these kind of subterfuges around nutrition programs and what is good for you and what isn't have been going on forever in Congress as various lobbyists come after them. And this very popular First Lady - who's standing at about 69 percent approval rating in Gallup polls when her husband is in the 40s - she's ready to take the Congress on on it.

MONTAGNE: Now, you know, there's often the impression that first ladies stay out of politics - how do Michelle Obama's efforts on this issue compare to what past first ladies have done?

ROBERTS: The truth is first ladies have been involved from the very beginning and - and we think of people like Hillary Clinton and her health care because that was so very, very public. But Laura Bush wrote op-eds for the Wall Street Journal, attacking the Burmese regime, and she privately - much more behind the scenes - did lobby Congress to get through the reauthorization of AmeriCorps, the volunteer program. You know, but you think the Rosalynn Carter and mental health - about Betty Ford and breast cancer - Nancy Reagan and drugs. And you see that they've all been out there before. But this is somewhat unusual in taking on a bill that you know - of the opposition party is championing. But it really has been going on from the beginning. As you know, I write about this, and Martha Washington lobbied Congress on behalf of Revolutionary war veterans because she had gone to camp with them every year for the revolution. But, you know, this - this bill that the first lady is lobbying on was just very bipartisan, but it got stuck in the polarizing machine of Washington where everything is now partisan.

MONTAGNE: So much more in that polarizing machine, as you put it.

ROBERTS: Absolutely. And, you know, as we go into the summer, we're going to see so much more of that. Not only is not immigration happening - unemployment insurance extension - but there's big fight over refunding the Export Import Bank, and the highway bill is something we're all going to feel if Congress doesn't reauthorize it because the potholes won't get fixed and the bridges won't get mended, and that's the hot potato of the summer.

MONTAGNE: Cokie, thank you as always. Commentator Cokie Roberts joins us most Mondays. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cokie Roberts was one of the 'Founding Mothers' of NPR who helped make that network one of the premier sources of news and information in this country. She served as a congressional correspondent at NPR for more than 10 years and later appeared as a commentator on Morning Edition. In addition to her work for NPR, Roberts was a political commentator for ABC News, providing analysis for all network news programming.
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