When Michelle Obama and her fifth-grade partners harvested lettuce and peas in the White House garden this spring, she made a point of saying that American children are "not eating right and not moving their bodies at all," and she cited what they eat in school as part of the problem.
On just about every schoolyard, the nation's obesity problem is apparent: A fifth of U.S. children are overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Nutrition advocates said the first lady's comments gave them increased hope that Congress would bolster the school lunch program when it takes up renewing the Child Nutrition Act, which expires Sept. 30.
"For more and more students in this economy, the meals they receive at school are their nutritional safety net," said U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), who chairs the Education and Labor Committee, which has jurisdiction over the legislation.
One portion of the bill would give the Department of Agriculture authority to update decades-old standards for the food children buy at school stores and vending machines, as well as foods such as pizza and French fries that are sold a la carte in cafeterias.
The current standards "are inconsistent and often unhealthy," said Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Petaluma), author of the House bill, at a recent hearing.
Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, agrees. "One of our top priorities is to get soda and junk food out of schools," she said.
California and Los Angeles are ahead of the curve: The Los Angeles Unified School District banned soda -- though not sports drinks -- in 2002, and has mostly cut out the sale of junk food. California limits fat and sugar in food sold on campuses. But Wootan said two-thirds of states have "weak or no policies" on junk foods.
President Obama has proposed a $1-billion annual increase for Child Nutrition Act programs, which currently cost about $15 billion a year. The act covers the government's reimbursements to school districts for meals; summer and after-school food programs; food served at many day-care facilities for children and adults; and the Special Supplemental Nutrition program for Women, Infants and Children, which provided food to more than 8 million people in 2007.
Some reforms seem likely. Woolsey's bill has more than 150 cosponsors and industry and school groups' support.
"The huge increase in obesity got attention," said Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center in Washington.
The National School Lunch Program, which feeds 30 million children a day, and the School Breakfast Program, which feeds a third that many, are getting much of the attention. Expanding the breakfast program is a priority for many. Starting the day hungry, experts say, affects children's ability to behave and learn.
About 15% of schools that offer lunch don't offer breakfast (1,200 schools in California, according to California Food Policy Advocates).
Several proposals are being discussed to streamline the way students are deemed eligible for free meals and to broaden the requirements so more children qualify.
Districts are reimbursed $2.68 to $2.70 (more in Alaska and Hawaii) for each free lunch they serve. Many child nutrition advocates would like to see that reimbursement raised by $1 per child per day to enable schools to serve more whole grains and fresh produce.