Charles Krupa / AP

Who is pulling the strings at the School Nutrition Association?

Why the largest school pizza supplier might be behind the school food lobby's scuffle with the first lady

August 8, 2014 6:00AM ET

As I wrote in June, a bitter fight erupted in Washington, D.C., when the School Nutrition Association (SNA) — representing the nation’s 55,000 school food professionals — decided to oppose nutrition improvements to federally subsidized school meals, claiming that districts face insurmountable challenges from too many changes happening too quickly. Michelle Obama has made the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 one of her top causes and she is pulling no punches defending the new rules, which require schools to serve lower-sodium and lower-fat meals with more whole grains and fruit and vegetable servings. The result is an unfortunate standoff between the White House and the SNA’s current leadership.

At the trade group’s annual meeting last month in Boston, I searched for clues. Why did the SNA reverse its earlier position supporting healthier school meals? I also wanted to hear directly from workers who have the thankless job of serving millions of schoolchildren every day.

My first inclination was to suspect influence from the SNA’s food industry sponsors; after all, the organization’s largest donors include Domino’s, PepsiCo and General Mills. But walking through the expo hall, it was clear that the food industry is having no problem meeting the new nutrition rules (a sign of how weak they are). “Whole grain blueberry turkey sausage breakfast sticks” from Jimmy Dean pass muster and, according to an account from Mother Jones, so do “toaster waffles with built-in syrup and endless variations on the theme of breaded poultry.”

Asked about the new regulations, the Domino’s rep shrugged them off, saying, “We can turn on a dime.” He proudly told me that the company’s “Smart Slice” pizza was formulated just for schools and even expressed some frustration over the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s previous flip-flops (for example, the USDA changed its policy earlier this year on caps for meat and grains), because companies such as his invest a lot of money in making changes. In other words, it could actually be harmful to some vendors for the USDA to reverse course now.

As for those actually serving the meals, two food service workers — one from Maryland and another from Texas — told me that the nutrition changes were happening too soon, and all at once. But others, such as a team from New Orleans and another from Maine, didn’t understand the SNA’s position; their schools had been serving healthier meals for years, so the changes are no big deal. In other words, some schools may be struggling, but many others are not. It also means that the narrative the SNA is pushing — that the rules are too difficult to meet — may not be the full story. 

Success stories

Implementing healthier school meals takes time and effort: It requires the cooperation of everyone — from students to distributors to principals. But it’s certainly quite feasible.

For instance, during a panel I attended, Helen Phillips, senior director of school nutrition at Norfolk Public Schools in Virginia, described her early transition to healthier meals in 2008, when the Institute of Medicine, a scientific advisory body, first released its school nutrition recommendations. She figured it was where the USDA was headed and wanted to get ahead of the game. It took several years to work out the kinks, she explained, but now the program is a great success. The key was to involve students. “I cannot emphasize enough,” she said repeatedly, “the importance of conducting taste-tests with the kids.” 

Could the SNA’s flip-flop trace at least partially back to Schwan, a top donor whose pizza products can be found in 75 percent of the nation’s 96,000 K–12 schools?

Similarly, Kiera Butler recently reported for Mother Jones how the director of food service for Cincinnati’s public schools, Jessica Shelly, steered her program toward a $2.7 million profit. Shelly got her produce distributor to create affordable salad bars so that schoolchildren could choose which vegetables they liked.

And success is not just happening in cities. According to Mother Jones, the director of a rural Vermont district where 43 percent of the students are on free or reduced lunch said he “had no problems whatsoever implementing the new changes.” Plenty of other success stories also demonstrate that it can be done.

The changes are largely a function of willpower, and those districts with the right leadership are not only coping, but also thriving, with some going beyond the minimum standards required by the federal government. More than 200 health and children’s organizations, as well as 19 past SNA presidents, also support the federal changes.

So why is the SNA digging in its heels — and picking a fight with the first lady, to boot? Especially when its vendors are already in full compliance and so many of its own members are having such success? 

Schwan’s way

The answer may lie — at least partially — in the SNA’s complicated connections with the food industry. Let’s take a closer look at one of SNA’s patrons (and top donors): Schwan. The Minnesota-based company’s pizza products can be found in 75 percent of the nation’s 96,000 K-12 schools. Of course, Schwan’s products meet the new rules, as pictures from its booth boasting “regulation ready” food indicate.

According to the Star Tribune, the company says it has not taken a position on the controversy. But Schwan has a seat on the School Nutrition Foundation’s board (as does PepsiCo); through it, Schwan offers scholarships to SNA members for professional development. More importantly, as the Washington Post explains:

At a 2012 SNA meeting, a Schwan executive and other industry advocates pushed for the group’s leadership to be more aggressive in asking for changes in the school lunch program, according to a person who witnessed the exchange but requested anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about it.

Remember when Congress declared pizza a vegetable? Schwan was behind that too. As the Star Tribune explained in 2011, without pizza sauce counting as a vegetable, schools would have “a difficult time serving pizza without spending more on other vegetables to serve with it — a potential blow to Minnesota’s Schwan Food Co.” On the SNA’s current agenda (PDF) is the removal of the requirement that schools serve a half-cup of either fruit or vegetables to children, which can cause strain on tight school budgets. That sounds exactly like the earlier concern that led to the absurd pizza-sauce-as-vegetable-serving outcome.

Could all this explain the chumminess I witnessed between Schwan and the SNA at the Boston meeting? One of the panelists at the SNA’s policy session was Craig Burkhardt, a lawyer with the group’s new lobbying firm, Barnes and Thornburg (whose clients include the National Rifle Association). Afterward, I noticed that the rep from Schwan was the first to greet Burkhardt, congratulating him on a great job; they obviously knew each other.

So is Schwan behind the SNA flip-flop? Of course, we can’t know for sure. But if one company really does have that much power over an organization whose mission is to “ensure all children have access to healthful school meals,” those battling for healthier school food have a long fight ahead. 

Michele Simon is a public health lawyer, the president of Eat Drink Politics, the author of “Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back” and an attorney with Foscolo and Handel, the food law firm.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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