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Food companies back group pushing waiver legislation for school lunch requirements

WASHINGTON – A special-interest group representing school nutritionists and backed financially by big food companies is pushing legislation that would allow school districts to bypass new lunch rules restricting sodium and requiring more fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

Six Minnesota firms representing major players in the nation’s food industry – Schwan’s, General Mills, Cargill, Land O’Lakes, Hormel and Michael Foods – have officially stayed neutral on the issue, taking no position on the dispute on Capitol Hill. Some companies, such as General Mills, say they already are working on products that would conform to the new standards.

Many of these firms, however, are quietly offering financial support to the lobbying effort seeking the waiver legislation now before Congress.

The public fight over the phased-in nutritional rules signed into law in 2010 is being waged by the School Nutrition Association. Once a genial, low-profile school nutrition advocacy group that initially supported the new rules, the SNA now is leading an aggressive charge in lobbying Capitol Hill for waivers from those very requirements.

The rules require school districts to gradually reduce sodium, calories and starch while increasing vegetables, fruits and whole grains. When passed in 2010, it had bipartisan support that stretched from first lady Michelle Obama to the U.S. Senate and some House Republicans. School districts and the SNA were among the fans.

That has all changed. The SNA now is pitted against more than 200 health organizations such as the American Heart Association and the American Medical Association, which support keeping the requirements intact. Even the food industry, which has long funded the SNA, is publicly distancing itself from the group’s prominent lobbying efforts.

The White House has threatened a veto of waivers to the nutritional rules. Jean Ronnei, vice president of SNA and chief operating officer for St. Paul public schools, said her district has been able to make the new rules work so far, but she wants flexibility going forward. She worries about the growing number of students dropping out of the school lunch program.

“I’m losing customers,” Ronnei said. “What do I decide to do? Charge more for that entree?” Ronnei said her school district is unable to serve familiar foods because of the new whole-grain requirements.

The business of feeding school kids is lucrative: The Department of Agriculture this year will devote $16.5 billion to pay for students’ lunches, breakfasts, milk, snacks and state administrative expenses.

Compliance with the new standards so far is high. More than 90 percent of schools across the country meet the current standards.

Yet the SNA has become increasingly dogged in its efforts to obtain waivers that would allow some schools to deviate. Association officials cite the healthier food – more whole wheat, fruits and vegetables and less salt – as a reason behind falling participation in the school lunch program. They also say the 6 cents more given by the feds for lunches meeting the requirements fails to offset the higher cost of fruits and vegetables. 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.

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.

Nutritional advocates and USDA officials say privately that with the new SNA lobbyist came a new, tougher approach.

The SNA doesn’t disclose its budget, but confirms that half its funding comes from food companies, including contributions from the large Minnesota firms. An employee from Schwan’s sits on the 2013-14 board of the School Nutrition Foundation, the SNA’s research arm, which also doles out thousands of dollars in scholarships to SNA members.

Jennie-O Turkey Store (operated by Hormel), General Mills, Schwan’s and Land O’Lakes have all donated between $3,000 and more than $25,000 each in 2012, 2013 and 2014 to the lobbying effort. In addition, all six Minnesota companies are “patron” SNA sponsors, which means they gave an additional $10,500 this year, according to the Environmental Working Group, a liberal advocacy group that examined tax filings and other public records.