Family Matters

Elmo at the White House? Monster Plugs School Lunch Bill

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There’s nothing like a furry red creature with a big nose to add a dash of excitement to the churn of bureaucracy. Elmo bounded into the White House kitchen earlier this week and talked turkey with hunky assistant presidential chef Sam Kass (Elmo calls him “Mr. Sam”) to mark the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which aims to boost the nutrition and taste quotient found in school lunchrooms.

Elmo: Elmo’s a little worried. Elmo’s mommy told him he’s going to go to school and eat lunch in school.

Kass: So why are you worried? That’s great!

Elmo: Because what if there isn’t any good food at school?

Kass: Oh, Elmo, there’s going to be great food in school. And because of this new law that’s passed, we’re going to make sure that all food in school is healthy, nutritious and delicious.

Elmo: Really? (Here, the monster sounds incredulous. It is, in fact, quite a pledge. School lunches are not renowned for their healthiness, nutritiousness or deliciousness. Earlier this year, my kindergartener and second-grader begged to buy lunch at school. Tacos were on the menu, and they love tacos. Well, turns out they didn’t love school-lunch tacos; actually, they hated them. Their flirtation with school-lunch buying ended as quickly as it began. Fortunately, they have a choice. But many millions of kids who qualify for free or reduced school meals don’t.) (More on More Muppets? The New ‘Superfoods’ Want Kids to Eat Healthy)

President Obama, who signed the legislation this week at a Washington, D.C., school, explained his support in terms of making sure “our kids have the energy and the capacity to go toe to toe with any of their peers, anywhere in the world. And we need to make sure that they’re all reaching their potential.”

What’s all this talk about capacity and potential got to do with the Sloppy Joes served up by the school cafeteria? More than 31 million U.S. children participate in school lunch programs. With the economy reeling, some of these kids get their only meals at school. Consider that one of every three kids in America qualifies as overweight or obese, and it’s not hard to see why breakfast and lunch eaten at school can make a big difference when it comes to many schoolchildren’s diet.

Both Democrats and Republicans hope the child nutrition bill will result in healthier food selection in school cafeterias and help teach kids about proper nutrition. It also aims to give the government the authority to set nutritional standards for all foods regularly sold in schools during the school day, including vending machines, and offers additional funding to schools that offer more nutritious meals. (More on Time.comStudy: 40% of Kids’ Calories Come From Solid Fat and Sugar)

First Lady Michele Obama, who has mounted a public campaign against childhood obesity, commented that “we can all agree that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, all children should have the basic nutrition they need to learn and grow and to pursue their dreams, because in the end, nothing is more important than the health and well-being of our children.  Nothing.”

But back to Elmo. The preschooler is incredulous when he hears that Kass intends to show him some examples of the kind of food he can expect to find in the school lunchroom. (More on Time.comMom and Consumer Group Sue McDonald’s For Luring Kids with Happy Meal Toys)

Elmo: Mr. Sam has the same kind of food that they have at school here at the White House?

Kass: I do.

Elmo: Well, that’s very convenient. (Elmo does a great job of saying this tongue-in-cheek.)

Kass whips out a few plates of appetizingly prepared and perfectly balanced meals — whole-wheat lasagna and salad, rice-and-bean burritos, garnished with apples and carrots.

If it’s good enough for the White House, apparently, it’s good enough for our public schools. Or is it the other way around?

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