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First lady battling GOP on school food

First lady Michelle Obama participated in a discussion in May about school nutrition.

AP/file

First lady Michelle Obama participated in a discussion in May about school nutrition.

WASHINGTON — First ladies typically avoid getting into public scraps, but Michelle Obama has jumped into perhaps her biggest battle yet.

She’s fighting a House Republican effort to soften a central part of her prized campaign to end childhood obesity, and she says she’s ready ‘‘to fight until the bitter end.’’

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The first lady even mocked the GOP effort in an opinion column and argued her case before her Twitter followers.

‘‘Remember a few years ago when Congress declared that the sauce on a slice of pizza should count as a vegetable in school lunches?’’ she wrote in The New York Times. ‘‘You don’t have to be a nutritionist to know that this doesn’t make much sense. Yet we’re seeing the same thing happening again with these new efforts to lower nutrition standards in our schools.’’

She lobbied largely behind the scenes four years ago for the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which requires more fruit, vegetables, and whole grains in school meals, along with less sodium, sugar, and fat. It was a major achievement, the first update to school lunch rules in decades designed to make school meals more nutritious.

The School Nutrition Association, an industry-backed group that represents school cafeteria workers and originally supported the standards, has now turned against them. The association says it fully supports getting kids to eat healthier but says many districts are losing money because students aren’t buying the healthier lunches.

More than 1 million fewer students eat lunch at school each day since the first round of standards went into effect in 2012, after decades of steadily increasing participation, said Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokeswoman for the association. A second round of rules, including standards for school breakfasts, took effect July 1.

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‘‘How can we call these standards a success when they are driving students away from the program?’’ she said.

Her group wants more flexibility for districts that are losing money. A House bill to fund the Agriculture Department next year would give districts a chance to apply to skip the requirements for one year.

Representative Robert Aderholt of Alabama, the Republican author of that measure, said the lunch rules go too far and came too fast for school districts to handle.

‘‘As well-intended as the people in Washington believe themselves to be, the reality is that from a practical standpoint, these regulations are just plain not working out in some individual school districts,’’ he said after a House panel approved the bill. A vote by the full House is expected after its July Fourth break.

‘‘I’m going to fight until the bitter end to make sure that every kid in this country continues to have the best nutrition that they can have in our schools,’’ the first lady said at a White House event.

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