PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: I'm Peter Overby in Washington. The School Nutrition Association, what you might call the national organization for lunch ladies, says it tried to do what Secretary Vilsack recommended. It says the Agriculture Department didn't help. So the SNA went to Congress. House Republicans provided help, but they also put the School Nutrition Association in the middle of a partisan battle over what to feed America's school students.
CONGRESSMAN ROBERT ADERHOLT: This is where the heavy hand of the government is coming down and trying to dictate to local school systems.
OVERBY: Republican Congressman Robert Aderholt chairs the subcommittee that decides how much money the school nutrition program gets each year. The spending bill includes a provision written by Aderholt that goes beyond what the School Nutrition Association asked for.
ADERHOLT: It only gives the schools more time to adjust.
OVERBY: Under Aderholt's provision, school districts can get a year-long waiver from all of the standards set by the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act - even those standards already in effect. A district would have to show that they cost too much. Democrats say the Republicans really want to kill off the nutrition standards in 2015. In committee, Democratic Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz had this exchange with Aderholt.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: So the majority does not intend to eliminate these nutrition standards and allow school districts to remain out of compliance.
ADERHOLT: Not in this bill. I mean, I can say -
ADERHOLT: There are movements out there that would like to change it, but this does not do that.
OVERBY: The Association embraces his Aderholt's provision. Its president, Kansas City Missouri nutritionist Leah Schmidt, points out that all they asked for with help with four specific issues.
LEAH SCHMIDT: The waiver was not one of our original asks.
OVERBY: Those four problems might have been fixed by talking with USDA. But the association, last year, dismissed a lobbyist with good connections in agriculture. The new lobbyists have good connections with congressional Republicans. And now Schmidt sounds like Congressman Aderholt.
SCHMIDT: These over prescriptive regulations have just really made it difficult for a lot of our members. And that's what - we are in this for our members.
OVERBY: The Association may be getting some corporate lobbying help. School pizza producer Schwan's Food Service reported that it was lobbying on the school nutrition issue. Company officials didn't respond to NPR's phone calls. Two other big players in school nutrition, ConAgra and the American Frozen Food Institute, told NPR they're sitting out the fight over the waiver. But the association is up against its old liberal allies - among them, the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
MARGO WOOTAN: We lobbied together and belong to the same coalition.
OVERBY: Margo Wootan is the center's director of food policy.
WOOTAN: Instead of working cooperatively to try to help those schools that are struggling, SNA is working with a number of conservatives that completely oppose the school nutrition standards and are trying to gut them.
OVERBY: Nineteen former presidents of the School Nutrition Association are asking Congress to reject the waiver. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.