Recently, first lady Michelle Obama launched the Let’s Move! initiative to reduce obesity in children. The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 required changes in the diet for school lunches, and the law has reduced calorie intake by 200 calories per meal.

In response, Republicans in Congress have decided to change the law that provides for school lunches to allow school districts to opt out for one year if they complain that the cost of implementing the new rules is too high. Some people believe the changes in the school lunch program are too expensive. They also complain that these requirements are causing students to throw away food that they refuse to eat.

After the first lady wrote an op-ed in The New York Times on May 27 lamenting people playing politics with kids’ health, the House Appropriations Committee passed an agriculture budget bill. The bill included nearly $21 billion for child nutrition, but also allows schools to opt out of White House nutritional guidelines.

On one side of this latest debate, the School Nutrition Association (SNA) praised the House’s legislation. The SNA receives financing from food companies that originally were opposed to the nutrition standards. In explaining the total opt-out option, U.S. Rep.  Robert B. Aderholt has said that the temporary one-year waiver “simply provides them a lifeline,” noting that only districts that lost money in part of the past year would qualify for the waiver. “The bottom line is that schools are finding it‘s too much, too quick.”

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack countered by saying that the administration has added money in the form of grants to schools to help districts purchase healthier foods. He added that the rules had no effect on food waste, which had been an issue since 2007, before the nutrition standards were in place.

On the ground in school cafeterias, the reality is muddled. About 32 million children participate in school meal programs each day, and 9.2 million students pay full price for school lunches. This suggests that kids whose families can afford for them to avoid school lunch programs opt out. Elsewhere, it seems students who could use the program also avoid it. In Washington, D.C., more than 60,000 low-income children have been skipping lunch, according to one investigation.

The school lunch program has always been political, in a particularly agricultural way. The frozen-food lobby takes on the fresh-produce people. The tomato growers do battle with nutritionists who don’t want to count pizza as a vegetable. The anti-starch advocates square off against the potato growers.

But subsidizing meals for public school students used to be universally accepted, commented New York Times writer Ron Nixon, like Social Security or federally funded bridge construction.

Some argue that the only reason the issue of school lunch programs is coming up now is due to U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan who “took a strong, principled stand against school lunches” in a speech to the Conservative Political Action Committee.

“They are offering people a full stomach and an empty soul,” Ryan said of school lunch advocates.

So what does this have to do with anything other than politics? It has a lot to do with the economics of the future. It has to do with developing young minds in schools through better nutrition while reducing obesity rates. It also has to do with money. Federally funded school lunch programs total $11 billion annually.

In a growing global economy, Americans need to be prepared. This requires an educated workforce, but this cannot be accomplished in poor neighborhoods where parents may not be able to provide nutritious meals on a regular basis. School lunch programs that serve the needy provide a source of sustenance that permits children to be alert, healthy and awake while learning how to succeed. All children are subject to obesity if they don’t eat right. That’s why it’s an issue.

So the real problem is this: Do the changes in the school lunch program affected by the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act create a more educated and healthier future workforce? Or does the program create expensive menu requirements that are not being consumed in the first place? What do you think?