Michelle Obama and School Nutrition Association Battle over Meal Program

An internecine battle has broken out between the Obama administration and the School Nutrition Association (SNA) over the federal government’s requirements for school meal programs. The fight has gotten so nasty that Michelle Obama’s food policy czar, celebrity chef Sam Kass, who handed out awards at the SNA's annual convention in 2012, was refused permission to speak at this year's convention, held in Boston this week and attended by approximately 6,500 school nutrition workers. 

According to Politico, the brouhaha arose from the different goals each group has for the $11 billion school lunch program; some food companies "want to build brand loyalty early and even the legacy of the first lady," while Michelle Obama and her supporters, intent on controlling children’s food intake, try to impose their views on the program.

Patricia Montague, SNA’s CEO, noted the myriad of rules and regulations for the school districts, saying, “Our members are very frustrated. Everybody is feeling a little bit stretched and stressed by what they’re facing.” In reference to Kass, she stated, “We didn’t feel [our members] wanted to hear the rallying call. We felt it was best he not come.”

Times have changed; in 2012, SNA boasted of Kass’s appearance at the convention, “It’s not often that school nutrition employees receive positive affirmation for the work they do on behalf of the nation’s children — much less be recognized for it on national television!”

But despite the fact that 90% of schools are meeting the federal standards, which enables them to receive federal funding, the SNA asked Congress for some regulatory relief. Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL) responded by adding a waiver rider in the House agriculture appropriations bill to allow schools to evade the requirements in 2014-15 if the schools show a net loss for six months. The Obama administration was irate that SNA apparently abandoned support for the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act after championing it when it was implemented.

Nineteen former SNA presidents wrote a letter against the waiver rider and asserted they were wary of the influence of the food industry on SNA’s position. Half of SNA’s operating budget comes from the food industry. With 55,000 members across the nation, SNA is fighting the new nutrition regulations, which include limits on sodium and orders students to have a serving of fruit or vegetables so their school is eligible for USDA reimbursement. But many districts are showing declining numbers of students enrolled in the program, and the funds accrued from the federal government for the school food programs are often spent to fund other programs.

Montague said on Sunday that criticism of SNA that it “doesn’t care about kids” or is trying to get rid of the food program is “hurtful and offensive.” She told the delegates, “You should be given the respect and deference that you so rightly deserve,” which triggered a standing ovation.

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) appeared at the convention, but he differed with Montague, telling SNA to work with the Obama administration and warning the organization of House Republicans, insinuating the GOP wants to scuttle the program. He said later, “My advice is also to not ask Congress to fix this legislatively because Congress will screw it up. There are members of Congress who believe the government shouldn’t be involved in school lunch at all.”

Michelle Obama has intoned that she will “fight until the bitter end” to keep the schools’ requirements in place, and the USDA is making its presence felt at SNA’s convention this week. The USDA is represented at several education sessions, including Janey Thornton, deputy undersecretary of USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service and a past SNA president, who is speaking to the delegates.

Montague also said she received a call from Kass in May, during which Kass asked SNA to jettison Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! program from its website. SNA did just that, but Montague noted that the organization had “done a lot to promote Let’s Move!” One example was Chefs Move! to Schools, which had local chefs interact with school nutrition programs to update the schools’ menus and teach cooking classes.

The acrimony between the two sides was apparent last week, when the SNA and the National School Board Association asked to meet with Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, but instead found themselves in a round table discussion in which Vilsack was accompanied by representatives of 14 other groups from the other side of the argument without Obama showing up. The SNA was also unhappy that the USDA’s meeting was scheduled during SNA’s annual board meeting; SNA’s top officials could not attend.

An administration official responded that they were “baffled” that the SNA only sent Wendy Weyer, who leads the Seattle Public Schools nutrition program, chairs SNA’s public policy committee, and serves on SNA’s board, to the meeting--and no other top officials.


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