Today, there seems to be very little that everyone in politics agrees upon.
But for a brief period four years ago, it looked as if everyone had found something they could agree about: It would be nice if school lunches were healthier. But that moment passed quickly. And now it seems that the debate over school nutrition is filled with the same level of vitriol you'll find in other battles over Obamacare, Benghazi, or Iraq.
Here are the four key factors you'll need to understand if you want to join the discussion over lunches in the public school system.
The Obama factor
The battle over school nutrition is, essentially, an attempt to delay implementation of the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFK Act). That Act was one of the signature accomplishments of Michelle Obama's signature initiative — the Let's Move! campaign to end childhood obesity.
The campaign in general, and the Act specifically, had nearly universal support back in 2010. But as time has passed, and the political atmosphere has grown more toxic, the Act grew less popular. There was a point where the First Lady's initiative stood outside the world of politics, but that time is gone.
The money factor
The HHFK Act called for making numerous changes to the meals served in schools across the country. Since the USDA funds the National School Lunch program, which offers free or reduced-cost meals to more than 30 million children in public schools each day, the USDA has the loudest voice at the table.
The USDA, working with the First Lady, the School Nutrition Association, and others, crafted a plan to make healthier meals the norm at school.
Among the proposed changes: Switching to low-fat and fat-free milk, requiring fruit or vegetables in every meal, cutting the amount of permissible sodium by half, and requiring a shift toward whole grains.
The Act, as it was proposed, would make for healthier kids. But it also meant that long-established food manufacturers who sell to foodservice operators or directly to school systems stood to lose a lot of money.
The lunch lady factor
One of the earliest backers of the HHFK Act was the School Nutrition Association (SNA), which represents school foodservice directors and cafeteria workers. The SNA helped craft the rules of HHFK, and put its weight behind supporting its passage.
And then, last year, everything changed at the SNA. The association hired the famously combative lobbying group called Barnes & Thornburg, best-known for its work with the National Rifle Association.
SNA turned against the Act and launched a large lobbying campaign to allow local school districts to opt out of the rules. According to the new SNA, the HHFK Act a) led to an increase in food waste, because kids would trash the healthier food; b) limits the freedom of children to learn to make their own choices; and c) costs too much for school districts to implement.
The SNA's change of heart generated considerable suspicion among the Act's supporters, who note, correctly, that half of SNA's funding comes from the food industry. And although the SNA doesn't disclose all the details on its donors, it's quite easy to find websites and product offerings that connect the association to companies such as Cargill, ConAgra, and General Mills.
More interestingly, the SNA does publish a list of donors to its Annual Fund. The biggest funder there is the National Dairy Council, which gave in excess of $100,000. The list of companies that donated lesser amounts covers nearly every major brand in the industry — including Campbell Soup, Coca-Cola, Pilgrim's Pride, Purdue, Pinnacle Foods, and Sodexo.
The time factor
On June 11, the debate over school nutrition had reached the critical point. The U.S. House was scheduled to vote on an agricultural appropriations bill that included a provision to let local school districts opt out of the new rules for a year.
But then, rather than make a decision, the House simply postponed the vote.
Early reports said that the vote would come within days. But that was weeks ago. And still there's not been a vote.
In the past, a delay like that likely meant that insiders were busy crafting a compromise. Certainly that's a possibility.
But with every passing day there's increasing conjecture that the battle over the HHFK Act is about to turn into a larger war over child-nutrition programs.
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