Lobbyists Loom Behind The Scenes Of School Nutrition Fight

Jun 11, 2014
Originally published on June 11, 2014 4:01 pm

The School Nutrition Association — what you might call the national organization for lunch ladies (and gents) — says it was trying to improve the healthfulness of school lunches.

But it says the U.S. Agriculture Department didn't help when things got tough, so it went to Congress. House Republicans provided help, but they also put the group in the middle of a partisan battle over what to feed America's school students.

Alabama Republican Rep. Robert Aderholt, who chairs the subcommittee that decides how much money the school nutrition program gets each year, is not a fan of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, as it stands. "This is where the heavy hand of the government is coming down and trying to dictate to local school systems," he said at a meeting of the House Appropriations Committee in May.

As we've reported, he is pushing for a one-year waiver of the new nutrition rules if a district can show the standards cost too much. "It only gives the schools more time to adjust," he says.

But the proposal goes beyond what the School Nutrition Association initially asked for.

Under Aderholt's provision, school districts can get a yearlong waiver from all of the standards set by the new standards — even those already in effect.

Democrats say Republicans just want to kill off the nutrition standards next year. During the May committee meeting, Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz asked Aderholt if Republicans intended to eliminate the nutrition standards.

"Not in this bill," he said, prompting other lawmakers to laugh. "There are movements out there that would like to change it ... but this does not do that."

Back in 2010, the SNA vigorously supported the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. Now it embraces Aderholt's provision, although president Leah Schmidt, a nutritionist from Kansas City, Mo., says the group only asked for help on four specific issues.

"The waiver was not one of our original asks," she says.

In the past, those issues might have been fixed in talks with the USDA, but the association dismissed a lobbyist with good USDA connections last year. The new lobbyists have good connections with congressional Republicans, and now Schmidt sounds a lot like Aderholt.

"These overprescriptive regulations have made it really difficult for a lot of our members. And we are in this for our members," she says.

As the Environmental Working Group noted Tuesday in a blog post, tax records show that $6.7 million of $10.5 million the School Nutrition Association collected in 2012 came from sponsorship fees from food companies like Schwan's Food Service, a major provider of pizza to schools.

And the SNA may also be getting some corporate lobbying help. Schwan's Food Service reported that it was lobbying on the school nutrition issue. Company officials didn't respond to NPR's phone calls.

Two other big players in school nutrition — ConAgra and the American Frozen Food Institute — tell NPR they're sitting out the fight over the waiver.

The shift in SNA's approach also means it is up against its old liberal-leaning allies who want the nutrition standards to stay, including the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

"Instead of working cooperatively to try to help those schools that are struggling, SNA is working with a number of conservatives that completely oppose the school nutrition standards and are trying to gut them," says Margo Wootan, the center's director of food policy.

And the pressure is on. First lady Michelle Obama is stepping up her efforts to save the standards, and 19 former presidents of the SNA are asking Congress to reject the waiver.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: I'm Peter Overby in Washington. The School Nutrition Association, what you might call the national organization for lunch ladies, says it tried to do what Secretary Vilsack recommended. It says the Agriculture Department didn't help. So the SNA went to Congress. House Republicans provided help, but they also put the School Nutrition Association in the middle of a partisan battle over what to feed America's school students.

CONGRESSMAN ROBERT ADERHOLT: This is where the heavy hand of the government is coming down and trying to dictate to local school systems.

OVERBY: Republican Congressman Robert Aderholt chairs the subcommittee that decides how much money the school nutrition program gets each year. The spending bill includes a provision written by Aderholt that goes beyond what the School Nutrition Association asked for.

ADERHOLT: It only gives the schools more time to adjust.

OVERBY: Under Aderholt's provision, school districts can get a year-long waiver from all of the standards set by the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act - even those standards already in effect. A district would have to show that they cost too much. Democrats say the Republicans really want to kill off the nutrition standards in 2015. In committee, Democratic Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz had this exchange with Aderholt.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: So the majority does not intend to eliminate these nutrition standards and allow school districts to remain out of compliance.

ADERHOLT: Not in this bill. I mean, I can say -

(LAUGHTER)

ADERHOLT: There are movements out there that would like to change it, but this does not do that.

OVERBY: The Association embraces his Aderholt's provision. Its president, Kansas City Missouri nutritionist Leah Schmidt, points out that all they asked for with help with four specific issues.

LEAH SCHMIDT: The waiver was not one of our original asks.

OVERBY: Those four problems might have been fixed by talking with USDA. But the association, last year, dismissed a lobbyist with good connections in agriculture. The new lobbyists have good connections with congressional Republicans. And now Schmidt sounds like Congressman Aderholt.

SCHMIDT: These over prescriptive regulations have just really made it difficult for a lot of our members. And that's what - we are in this for our members.

OVERBY: The Association may be getting some corporate lobbying help. School pizza producer Schwan's Food Service reported that it was lobbying on the school nutrition issue. Company officials didn't respond to NPR's phone calls. Two other big players in school nutrition, ConAgra and the American Frozen Food Institute, told NPR they're sitting out the fight over the waiver. But the association is up against its old liberal allies - among them, the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

MARGO WOOTAN: We lobbied together and belong to the same coalition.

OVERBY: Margo Wootan is the center's director of food policy.

WOOTAN: Instead of working cooperatively to try to help those schools that are struggling, SNA is working with a number of conservatives that completely oppose the school nutrition standards and are trying to gut them.

OVERBY: Nineteen former presidents of the School Nutrition Association are asking Congress to reject the waiver. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.