Perhaps the most visible advocate for improving school food, Michelle Obama is now defending what shouldn’t be such a controversial idea: adding fruits and vegetables to public school lunches. Ask any nutrition expert what foods Americans — especially kids — need more of in their diet, and the answer would be the same: fresh produce. But some Republicans, such as Rep. Robert Aderholt of Alabama, never seem to miss an opportunity to turn a no-brainer into a political battle, particularly when it comes to school food. (Who can forget the pizza as a vegetable debacle?) And just in time to give them the necessary cover, they got a gift from an unlikely source. The School Nutrition Association (SNA) has asked Congress to approve waiver requests for schools that are struggling to comply with federal nutrition regulations aimed at improving children’s health.
SNA represents the 55,000 school food directors, nutritionists and other professionals who have the tough and thankless job of feeding millions of schoolchildren every day. Some of its members no doubt face challenges implementing recent nutrition changes required by the feds, mostly caused by the six-cents-per-meal increase that Congress allotted, despite health advocates asking for $1 more. The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, as it is called, requires several changes based on scientific evidence, such as lowering sodium while adding whole grains and fruit and vegetable servings, along with an increase in federal reimbursement rates.
But instead of finding ways to help schools comply with the new rules, SNA has instead decided to pick a fight with the first lady and dozens of other public health and child-advocacy groups (PDF).
SNA originally supported the law when it was passed in 2010 with bipartisan support. And by most accounts, the rollout of the new rules has gone smoothly. But along the way, SNA had a change of heart. Its waiver language was included, for instance, in the agriculture appropriations bill that was passed in late May. (What does the agriculture appropriations bill have to do with school lunches? Technically, nothing. It’s just a convenient political maneuver and an end run around the usual regulatory process.)
While good for only one year, the waiver could become permanent, as a recently released SNA position paper (PDF) indicates. Meanwhile, the Senate passed compromise language to study the issue and has scheduled a hearing on child nutrition this Thursday.
How did this happen? That’s exactly what Michelle Obama would like to know. At a recent roundtable discussion covered by Politico, the first lady asked: “Why are we even having this conversation? Help me understand why, especially given the fact that the School Nutrition Association worked to pass the original changes in the nutrition standards.”
Part of the answer lies in a change in leadership, as reported by Jerry Hagstrom in the National Journal. A longtime lobbyist for SNA with close ties to the Obama administration was let go last year. It seems the new leadership is more inclined to let the group’s food industry connections interfere with doing the right thing.
Politico’s food and agriculture reporter, Helena Bottemiller, did some digging into SNA’s corporate connections. She spoke to several former presidents of the organization who said they are “worried that food companies have influenced the group’s agenda” because nutrition improvements “will take a big bite out of sales of popular items like pizza and salty snacks.”
It’s not a big stretch, given that half of SNA’s $10 million budget comes from food industry members, according to Politico. Much of the group’s revenue is generated at its annual conference, which brought in $4.7 million in 2012. At the meeting, Bottemiller found, “companies can pay $15,000 to sponsor an education session track featuring a company representative or $20,000 to put their logo on the hotel key cards.” The sponsors listed for the 2014 event, coming up in July, include such partners as Domino’s Pizza, Schwans (pizza again), General Mills, PepsiCo, Tyson Foods, Sara Lee and Muffin Town.
Predictably, SNA strongly denies any undue influence from its sponsors, despite the fact that they happen to have a hefty economic stake in the fight over school food.
“Proponents of the regulations are trying hard to explain away SNA’s efforts by spinning theories about industry influence,” SNA’s president, Leah Schmidt, told Politico. But, she said, “this is about our members, this is not about the food industry.”
How then, does she explain away a letter (PDF) signed by 19 former SNA presidents in support of maintaining the nutrition improvements? The letter urges Congress to “reject calls for waivers” and “maintain strong standards in all schools” and calls on the Department of Agriculture to provide additional technical assistance to help schools meet the new standards. So who is really representing school food professionals, and who is doing the bidding of the junk food industry?
SNA’s current leadership may truly believe it is speaking out on behalf of its members rather than its corporate funders; regardless, partnering with companies such as Domino’s and PepsiCo has tarnished the group’s reputation. Last year, I published a report exposing Big Food’s ties to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the trade organization representing the nation’s registered dietitians. The academy’s credibility, I argued, is compromised by its strong affiliations with corporations whose products and aggressive marketing tactics are harming the nation’s health. In both cases, these groups may have valid positions that just happen to align with those of the junk food lobby, but nobody will take them seriously as long as sales of soda, pizza and muffins are paying their bills.