By Ron Nixon
WASHINGTON — When the Obama administration in 2012 announced long-awaited changes to require more fruits and vegetables and less sugar and salt in government-subsidized school meals, no group celebrated more than the School Nutrition Association.
The group had anticipated the changes for three years, and it was enthusiastic in thanking President Obama and his wife for their efforts to “expand children’s access to healthy school meals.”
Two years later, the association has done an about-face and is leading a lobbying campaign to allow schools to opt out of the very rules it helped to create, saying that the regulations that have gone into effect are “overly prescriptive” and too costly for schools that are trying to replace hamburgers and fries with healthier alternatives.
Congress is listening, and it is considering legislation to delay the nutrition regulations for a year, some of which have already gone into effect. But some of the association’s onetime allies in the school-meal campaign are mystified, if not suspicious, concerning the group’s motivations.
“They sold their souls to the devil,” said Stanley C. Garnett, a former Agriculture Department official who ran the agency’s child nutrition division. He was a member of the School Nutrition Association who resigned in protest of the lobbying campaign.
The devils in this case, the association’s critics say, are the dozens of food companies that have paid millions in sponsorship fees to the School Nutrition Association, covering more than half of its $10.5 million annual budget.
Reacting to the association’s change of heart, the House Appropriations Committee has passed a spending bill with a provision that would allow schools to waive the nutrition standards during the school year that begins in the fall. A vote by the full House is tentatively set after the Fourth of July recess. A similar amendment was offered for Senate spending bills, but Democrats canceled the debate after disagreeing with Republicans over that and other amendments.
The School Nutrition Association says it still supports healthier options for schoolchildren whose lunches are subsidized, but a major problem, the group said, is that children are simply throwing away the fruits and vegetables. The waste amounts to $684 million each year, said Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokeswoman for the group. That money, she said, “is enough to serve complete reimbursable school lunches to more than 228 million students.”
As part of its legislative outreach, the association replaced its longtime representative in Washington with the high-powered lobbying firm Barnes & Thornburg. Marshall Matz, who was the group’s lobbyist for more than 30 years, had long focused his efforts on the Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration. But the campaign change has prompted a shift to Congress, especially the House and Senate Appropriations Committees.
“SNA saw the appropriations process as the only way of providing our members immediate relief,” Pratt-Heavner said.
She said that the organization had expressed its concerns in 2011 during a public comment period on the standards. The association later met with Agriculture Department officials, including Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Under Secretary Kevin Concannon. After officials failed to respond to their requests, it turned to Congress.
The School Nutrition Association’s aggressive lobbying has led to a backlash from other nutrition groups, parent-teacher organizations, food service workers unions and the powerful teachers’ union, the National Education Association, which counts cafeteria employees among its members.
Nineteen former presidents of the School Nutrition Association also have written a letter to Congress opposing legislation that would delay the school meal standards. Michelle Obama has weighed in, too.
Mary Kusler, director of government affairs for the National Education Association, said, “We’re quite honestly perplexed by this change of position by the SNA”
Some School Nutrition Association members say there have been no major problems complying with the standards.
“I’m balancing, I’m juggling. It’s hard,” said Mary A. Hill, executive director of food services for public schools in Jackson, Mississippi. “But you don’t go to war over this.”
Hill, one of the former School Nutrition Association presidents who signed the letter opposing the delay, said her district had been able to buy and serve healthier foods while maintaining its budget. She said that Jackson schools — which serve 30,000 students at 59 schools — cook up about 13,500 breakfasts, 26,000 lunches and 1,500 after-school snacks each day.
The School Nutrition Association’s current president, Leah Schmidt, a school nutrition official from Kansas City, Missouri, said criticism of its corporate support distracted from the real issues, and food companies have only one representative on the group’s board of directors.
“Proponents of the regulations are trying hard to explain away SNA’s efforts by spinning theories about industry influence,” Schmidt said in a recent open letter to members.
Still, there are signs that the criticism is having an effect. Last month, the association released a letter it had sent to Michelle Obama and Vilsack requesting a meeting on the nutrition standards. The White House has scheduled a July 10 meeting with several nutrition advocates, including the association. But the administration has given no indication that it intends to delay the rules.