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June 2, 2014

First lady's school lunch agenda faces backlash

WASHINGTON — In Georgia, kids resisted the loss of their beloved fried chicken. In New Mexico, whole-wheat tortillas went straight to the trash can. And in Tennessee, after schools replaced familiar flaky white biscuits with a whole-grain variety, one official reported a "massive amount of rejection."

What began as an effort led by first lady Michelle Obama to serve more-healthful food to American schoolchildren has turned into a clash of cultures across the country - and, now, a high-profile Washington lobbying battle.

At stake in the argument over lunch menus, beyond the natural tension between nutrition and children's taste buds, are the profits of several large food companies that sell frozen pizzas, french fries and other prepared foods to schools.

The dispute provides a fresh illustration of the ways special interests can assert power in Washington. In this case, food companies forged an alliance with a key lobbying group, the School Nutrition Association, and pushed it to shift its position from publicly supporting the Obama-backed standards to pressing Congress for relief.

On Thursday, a House committee voted for a Republican-backed measure that would allow school districts to temporarily opt out of the nutrition standards, which were passed in 2010 with the support of the White House and set mandates to reduce sodium and increase whole grains and servings of fresh fruits and vegetables.

The party-line vote served as a rebuke of sorts to the first lady, who has made curbing child obesity a priority and delivered a series of public pronouncements in recent days decrying the opt-out proposal as a full embrace of junk food. The measure is expected to be considered later this summer when House and Senate members meet to negotiate spending bills.

Obama herself has emerged as a key factor in the schism stemming from the new standards.

Some school officials, particularly in rural communities, have complained about the White House seeking to impose costly food standards on districts that don't want them. Several of these critics, speaking with reporters this week, complained about cafeteria garbage cans swelling with fruits, veggies and other healthful foods rejected by students.

"We can't force students to eat something they don't want," said Lyman Graham, food service director for consolidated schools near Roswell, N.M. "Many families in the Southwest will not accept whole-grain tortillas.

"Schools can't change cultural preferences," Graham added. "And with sky-high produce costs, we simply cannot afford to feed our trash cans."

Jonathan Dickl, school nutrition director in Knox County, Tenn., described anger over the demise of traditional biscuits, a food he called a "mainstay" in the South. He said it was "heartbreaking" to see the amount of food thrown away.

Dolores Sutterfield, child nutrition director in Harrisburg, Ark., described an act of rebellion by children served containers of applesauce. Instead of opening them, students piled them on trays in pyramid form before throwing them out, uneaten.

"Older students, especially, know what they want, and some days they simply don't want a fruit or vegetable," she said.

At a competing event this week, Michelle Obama gathered together other school nutrition officials with a different story. Advocates for the higher standards included school officials from New York, Los Angeles and Burke County, Ga., a rural district with a high proportion of poor students.

They acknowledged that the mandatory fruit and vegetable portions produced complaints at first but said the initiative is now a success.

Donna Martin, the Burke County school nutrition director, said kids there happily eat salads and fresh fruits.

She admitted the transition was rocky.

 "In the South, do you not think that taking fried chicken off the menu was dangerous?" she asked. "It was. But we have an herb-baked chicken that our children love. We bake our french fries, and we have whole-grain, locally grown grits we do for breakfast that are awesome."

Helen Phillips, a nutrition official in the Norfolk schools and a past president of the School Nutrition Association when the group supported the White House approach, said that some school districts are struggling.

"Some of that struggle comes from not being prepared, and some of it comes from attitudes [such as], 'I can't, I won't, or this is hard,' " Phillips said. "Some people are having financial constraints. Some people have suffered a decrease in participation."

The disconnect between school nutritionists from different parts of the country has been a major factor in the changing politics around school lunches.

A key change was the switch by the School Nutrition Association.

Obama, during her appearance this week, singled out the SNA's role, noting that the group helped her and other advocates push for the standards in the first place.

"It is my understanding that this is the group that's pushing to change the legislation," she said. "If anyone can help me understand how we wound up here _"

The two sides offer competing story lines to explain the shift. But it is clear that bitter disagreements over the nutrition standards - in many cases pitting urban vs. rural schools, Republicans vs. Democrats and business backers vs. health-food advocates - prompted a civil war within the organization and the appointment of new leadership and new lobbyists.

Former presidents of the organization say the School Nutrition Association came under greater influence from the handful of large companies that dominate the multi-billion-dollar school food industry.

Several former top SNA officials, requesting anonymity to discuss finances, said that corporate involvement grew over time, leading the organization to alter its stance.

Current leaders of the association say their new position reflects real concerns of their 55,000 members who represent school cafeterias across the country.

SNA spokeswoman Diane Pratt-Heavner called claims of excessive industry influence "wildly exaggerated" and designed to "overly politicize the debate." She said Thursday that companies' contributions of $5 million in fiscal year 2013 represented 49 percent of the group's revenues.

Former association leaders describe a more substantial corporate role in determining SNA's agenda.

Corporate members, for instance, now make up about a third of the participation in the organization's annual legislative conference, former officials say.

A key member is Minnesota-based Schwan Food, which says it provides pizzas to more than 75 percent of the country's 96,000 K-12 schools.

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.

Schwan officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Working a year earlier through a group called the Coalition for Sustainable School Meals Programs, industry officials had succeeded in pushing Congress to designate pizza with tomato sauce as a vegetable.

The new approach by the school nutritionists' lobby surprised Sam Kass, a White House chef and top adviser to the first lady, who recalled attending past meetings of the group and hearing the administration being thanked profusely by its members.

Kass said that the group's insistence on waivers from the new nutrition rules would slow progress in improving childhood nutrition.

"Having House Republicans step in and allow schools to opt out of nutrition standards is not flexibility and does not move us closer to a healthier country," he said.

 

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