Tess VandenDolder -
For many young professionals far from their schools days and a ways away from having children of their own, the battle over healthier school lunches seems of little relevance. But in Washington, D.C., the policy debate has become an all encompassing issue highlighting the intricate network of lobbyists, corporations and associations all with a financial stake in a policy that was otherwise born of good intentions.
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was passed in 2010, offering $4.5 billion in new funding over 10 years. However, the details of the new program have yet to be implemented due to a growing chorus of criticism from stakeholders in various industries, combined with the fear that a new Republican Senate could gut the program all together.
No one is doubting that healthy school lunches are a critical part of building a healthy society. The federal government first began subsidizing school lunches in 1945 as a national security effort after receiving testimony that many potential army recruits were being turned away due to poor nutrition. In 2009, the Department of Defense announced that obesity was the number one medical reason for turning away potential soldiers.
However, the financial stakes involved are hard to ignore. In the 2009-10 school year, $20 billion was spent on food and operating costs in America's school cafeterias. Much of this profit is going to the large food companies that supply these schools with cheap meals in bulk, whereas schools themselves are hoping to turn a profit on sales from snacks and vending machines.
As the debate wages on, schools are arguing that nutrition requirements are preventing them from making money off of unhealthy snacks. They are also struggling to break even with less students choosing to buy the newer, healthier lunches. As a result, food companies are making less profits, and are unable to now sell certain products due to nutrition requirements.
To break this down, here's a look at the three biggest special interest actors with the highest stakes in this debate.
The School Nutrition Association
The SNA is mostly made up of the people who actually run school lunch programs – think of it as the lunch lady association. The organization was initially one of the biggest allies for the Let's Move! campaign and at first supported the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. As schools began experiencing a decline in school lunch programs as a backlash to the new healthier meals, and food corporations began upping their fight over the types of food that could be deemed "healthy" under the parameters of the program, the SNA realigned itself with food corporations. Now the SNA is fighting for a wavier that would give schools more time to become profitable before adapting to the new healthy eating guidelines.
The SNA has spent roughly $150,000 a year on lobbying since the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was passed in 2010.
The American Frozen Food Institute
An umbrella lobbying group for the frozen food industry, the AFFI also oversees the National Yogurt Association and the National Frozen Pizza Institute. Annually school lunch programs spend about $450 million on frozen pizzas, and the AFFI became a key player in the fight over the nutritional value of pizza, by claiming the tomato paste used should be classified as a vegetable. They also led the fight against the crackdown on "starchy vegetables," like french fries, by highlighting the low cost and high potassium content of potatoes.
At the height of these policy debates in 2011, the AFFI spent $550 million on lobbying. This year they have spent nearly $100,000.
Schwan Food Company
This massive frozen food company make $3 billion a year in sales, and supplies roughly 70 percent of all the frozen pizza served in America's school cafeterias. The company aggressively fought the Obama administration's regulations to lower sodium counts, claiming they would be “impossible to achieve without significant technological advances.” Schwan also partnered with its competitor, ConAgra, to win over members of the SNA to form their own lobbying group called the Coalition For Sustainable School Meals, which is designed to fight nutrition regulations.
In 2014, Schwan spent $100,000 on in-house lobbying efforts, the most in at least a decade.