Tags: Michele Obama | school | nutrition | cafeteria

Michelle Obama, School Lunch Group Split on Rules

Image: Michelle Obama, School Lunch Group Split on Rules

By    |   Wednesday, 04 Jun 2014 03:20 PM

At one time, first lady Michelle Obama and the School Nutrition Association, which represents about 55,000 cafeteria workers, were working together to try to get school children to eat healthier — but those days have changed.

Initially, Politico reports, the group lobbied for the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, a law that Obama championed requiring school menus to contain more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and less sodium.

But the SNA has changed its tune since then. Now it agrees with House Republicans who want to grant schools waivers from the federal standards if the law is making them lose money.

"It's inexplicable and very unfortunate," said Kevin Concannon, undersecretary for food and nutrition for the Department of Agriculture. "Somehow their leadership decided that they're just going to swing for the fences."

Agriculture has issued significant changes, including giving more flexibility on the law's whole-grain pasta rule. But the SNA has been fighting on Capitol Hill rather than trying to win more concessions directly, and has been lobbying for a rider on the House agriculture appropriations bill to make the USDA give the schools waivers from nutrition standards.

Not all SNA members agree, and 19 former presidents have broken ranks to urge lawmakers to reject calls for the waiver.

Child nutrition "shouldn't be a partisan issue," said former SNA President Dorothy Caldwell, who worries leaders are allowing the National School Lunch Program, for free or reduced lunches, to be unnecessarily politicized.

Obama also questioned the SNA's new platform in a roundtable discussion last week, asking that leaders "help me understand why, especially given the fact that the School Nutrition Association worked to pass the original changes in the nutrition standards."

She also decried politicians' attempts to politicize the school lunch program in an opinion piece for The New York Times, saying her program "is a big win for parents who are working hard to serve their kids balanced meals at home and don't want their efforts undermined during the day at school."

But former SNA presidents say food companies have pushed the group to change its stance after the nutrition standards for the program were expected to cut into sales of pizza, hot dogs, and other foods that did not meet federal guidelines.

According to tax filings, about half of the SNA's $10 million operating budget comes from the food industry, reports Politico. At the SNA's annual conference, food companies paid premiums of $20,000 to put their names on hotel key cards and another $15,000 to sponsor an education session with a company representative.

SNA President Leah Schmidt denied the industry is pushing her group.

"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.

"These speculations are false, unsupported by credible sources, and serve no purpose other than to overly politicize the debate and detract from the legitimate concerns of school nutrition professionals nationwide."

But around when the SNA started changing its approach, it fired Marshall Matz, its lobbyist of 30 years. He was seen as being too close to the Obama administration and was replaced with Barnes & Thornburg, which represents several powerful clients, including the National Rifle Association and Education Management Corp.

Cathy Schuchart, the SNA's vice president of governmental affairs, said that she does not think the issues mean there is a fight, but that her group wants to come up with some solutions with the USDA, as schools are having difficulty serving meals that many kids end up rejecting.

About 1.2 million students nationwide are no longer buying school lunches, and when they do, they often don't eat it.

Dora Rivas, executive director of the Dallas Independent School District, also a former SNA president, said she sympathizes with districts that are having a tough time.

"Change is hard," she said, but "is a one-year waiver really going to help them along?"

"It's only going to delay giving kids the opportunity to try and learn to eat healthy foods while we are in the middle of a childhood obesity epidemic," Rivas said. "It's only going to delay the work we've got to get done."

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At one time, first lady Michelle Obama and the School Nutrition Association, which represents about 55,000 cafeteria workers, were working together to try to get school children to eat healthier — but those days have changed.
Michele Obama, school, nutrition, cafeteria
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2014-20-04
Wednesday, 04 Jun 2014 03:20 PM
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