JERUSALEM, Israel – First lady Michelle Obama’s influence over school food appears to extend far beyond the United States.
Israel National News reports that education officials in that country issued an edict recently banning schools from celebrating student birthdays with traditional treats like candy or cake and poses the question: “Has Michelle Obama been consulting with Israel’s Education Ministry?”
“Last year, the Ministry quietly started a new program to promote healthy eating – by requiring healthy snacks at birthday parties,” according to the news site. “The program is now to be expanded to schools around the country.”
“Birthday parties are generally venues for consumption of less-healthy foods, including candy and soft drinks,” Irit Livna, health matters supervisor for the Education Ministry told Israel National News. “Because there are so many of these events we are required to increase awareness of healthy eating among parents and children, especially in kindergarten and younger grades.”
The decision mirrors suggestions from the first lady and moves by American schools to ban birthday cupcakes or other “unhealthy” treats for classroom celebrations. Those bans are not imposed by the federal government because the food is not purchased on school property, but are implemented by school officials who want to control everything students eat at school.
In the U.S., federal school food restrictions championed by Michelle Obama have been met with fierce resistance from students and many school officials because the federal regulations on calories, fat, sugar, sodium, whole grain, fruits and vegetables render school food bland and unappetizing, while producing massive waste.
Since the regulations went into effect in 2012, more than 1.2 million students dropped out of the National School Lunch Program, while those who remained largely trashed their mandatory greens, leading to an estimated $1 billion increase in food waste.
Israel education officials seem to be using the same justifications for imposing school food regulations as America’s first lady, though they haven’t yet imposed the full gambit of regulations seen in the U.S.
“According to the Education Ministry, more than a quarter of Israeli kids are overweight, due mostly to their overexposure to processed foods, and a lack of fresh fruits and vegetables,” Israel National News reports.
MORE NEWS: How to prepare for face-to-face classes
The new school food rules in Israel have been in the works for a while, and officials are looking to Michelle Obama and others for inspiration.
Rachel Azaria, a former Jerusalem City Council member who now serves as a member of the Knesset for Kulanu, told Forward.com in 2013 the first lady’s Let’s Move campaign, and British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution prompted her to lead the charge for government-mandated “healthy” school meals.
“We’ve been working on this behind the scenes for a long time,” she said in 2013. “But in late 2012 we turned it into a real campaign and we are demanding that the Education Ministry address this important issue.”
To that end, Azaria organized activist parents by circulating petitions, launching protests and campaigning through Facebook. The group also took a page from Michelle O to use sympathetic “experts” to convince the public that government control of school food is a good thing.
“We’ve got pediatricians, nutritionists and dieticians on our side helping to explain to politicians and parents that Israelis have been rapidly gaining weight, that we have an obesity problem in our society as well,” Azaria said.
The changes to Israel’s school food were issued just in time for the current school year, about the same time researchers with the Institute of Psychology at Liverpool University released a study that shows such government regulations may actually make fat kids fatter.
“There is quite a substantial body of research showing it is not really very much fun being an overweight person in this climate,” Liverpool University researcher Eric Robinson told The Guardian. “It is a stigmatized condition. Realizing you are an overweight individual is in itself likely to be quite stressful and make making healthy choices in your lifestyle more difficult.”
The Week connected the dots: “In other words, anti-obesity campaigns, like the Let’s Move! Program spearheaded by First Lady Michelle Obama, can do more harm than good.”