Monday, June 23, 2014

School nutritionists' lobby, backed by food giants, switches to fight against new school-meal standards

The School Nutrition Association, which initially supported U.S. Department of Agriculture rules to curb obesity and encourage healthier eating in U.S. schools, is now one of the leading opponents of the rules. Backed by several major food companies—such as General Mills, Cargill, Land O’Lakes and Hormel—the organization "is pushing legislation that would allow school districts to bypass new lunch rules restricting sodium and requiring more fruits, vegetables and whole grains," Allison Sherry reports for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis.

The lobby asked for a one-year waiver from the new rules, saying schools were losing money when students refused to eat the healthier foods. A House committee approved a bill allowing some schools to opt out, but the House has since delayed a vote on it.

Even though 90 percent of U.S. schools have complied with the new standards, the SNA, which receives half its funding from food companies, isn't backing off, Sherry writes. That can be attributed to recent changes in the organization.

"The SNA for years worked from a different playbook. It employed an old-school Washington lobbying firm that specialized in agriculture. It worked closely with the USDA, made few waves and captured even fewer headlines," Sherry writes. "That changed last year. The SNA dumped its old lobbyist and hired Barnes & Thornburg, a group known for its top-notch, aggressive grass-roots outreach, whose client roster includes the National Rifle Association. The NRA last year snuffed out two major gun-control measures in the U.S. Senate employing a similar grass-roots approach. . . . Nutritional advocates and USDA officials say privately that with the new SNA lobbyist came a new, tougher approach. SNA stopped working through the executive branch and began pushing legislative fixes," Sherry writes.

The SNA sent a letter dated June 19 to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and First Lady Michelle Obama, a big supporter of the standards, who criticized the GOP bill and said parents should get involved in ensuring their children eat healthy, requesting a meeting with the two to discuss the standards.

SNA's suggestions are: Retain the current requirement that 50 percent of grains offered with school meals be whole-grain-rich, rather than further increasing the requirement to 100 percent; retain Target 1 sodium levels, and suspend implementation of further sodium levels unless and until scientific research supports such reductions for children; retain requirements to offer a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, but eliminate the mandate that students must take a fruit or vegetable with meals; and allow any food item permitted to be served as part of a reimbursable meal to be sold at any time as a competitive food.

Patti Montague, the CEO of SNA, was a recent radio guest on Agri-Pulse. To hear her interview click here. UPDATE, July 8: Darlene Superville of The Associated Press has a situation piece.

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