As first lady Michelle Obama looked on, President Barack Obama on Monday signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which will set national nutritional standards for public schools, boost funding for low-income meal programs and advance his wife’s campaign against childhood obesity.
During a signing ceremony at Harriet Tubman Elementary School in Washington, the president acknowledged the first lady’s stake in the legislation’s success.
“Not only am I very proud of the bill,” he said, “but had I not been able to get this passed, I would be sleeping on the couch.”
He then yielded the podium to the first lady, who defended the bill from its detractors — including some Democrats, who objected to funding it in part through cuts in food aid for the poor. Speaking at the ceremony, she touted what she called a “groundswell” of Republican and Democratic support for the legislation.
“While we may sometimes have our differences, we can all agree that in the United States of America, no child should go to school hungry,” she said. “These are the basic values that we all share regardless of race, party, religion. … These are the values that this bill embodies.”
For much of Obama’s term, the White House staff kept the first lady engaged in her own, largely inoffensive priorities — urging parents and children to exercise more, campaigning for fresh food access in low-income communities and promoting the interests of military families — while keeping her well above the political fray on Capitol Hill.
But as the school-nutrition bill evolved, the first lady became involved in the sometimes messy world of legislative sausage-making to help push it through. It was a gamble for a White House that has staunchly protected her reputation and popularity, which is higher than her husband’s.
Meanwhile, the bill’s start-and-stop progress included drawn-out negotiations with Democrats and a high-stakes attempt to get it passed just before the party lost its unified grip on Congress in the midterm elections.
Michelle Obama on Monday noted the bipartisan support the bill received to move past roadblocks. She also rebutted conservative critics who complain that her anti-obesity campaign is more Big Government at work.
The first lady called childhood obesity a national security issue that leaves one in four young people unfit for military service. The epidemic, she said, adds as much as $150 billion to the nation’s health care costs, including obesity-related problems such as diabetes and hypertension.
Republicans and Democrats “come at this issue from all different angles, but they come together to support this bill because they know it’s the right thing to do for our kids,” Obama said. “And they know in the long run, it won’t just save money, it will save lives.”
But as the bill made its way through Congress — and as election-year politics heated up — the measure nearly sank.
Republicans blasted the first lady’s crusade as “nanny-state” government overreach, while conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh called the nutrition bill a new “entitlement program” that regulates how parents raise their children.
At the same time, some Democrats grumbled that the bill was a White House-backed vanity project that borrowed from one low-income food program to pay for another. While the $4.5 billion bill is the first upgrade for low-income food programs in 30 years, it was paid for in part with $2.2 billion in cuts to the SNAP food-stamp program — a provision that sparked a revolt among House Democrats who threatened to derail the legislation.
To get Democrats on board, Obama agreed to promise that he would make SNAP whole again. “I’m committed to working with them [Democrats] to restore these funds in the future,” he said Monday.
During the ceremony, Michelle Obama said that, because of the school-nutrition bill, parents teaching their kids proper nutrition at home can be sure their lessons “won’t be undone in the school cafeteria every day.”