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

The Minnesota companies — 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.

Instead, the 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 cheerleaders.

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 SNA, which has local operations in every state, is urging lawmakers to adopt waivers that would allow school districts that are losing money on school meals to opt out of the rules. That position is backed strongly by Republicans, including Rep. John Kline, chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. 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?"

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. In Minnesota alone, schools dish out nearly 100 million lunches a year.

Compliance with the new standards so far is high. More than 90 percent of schools across the country meet the current standards; it's 92.5 percent in Minnesota.

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.

In Minnesota, school lunch participation rates fell by about 5 percent last year, from 100 million meals in 2012 to 96 million 2013.

A change in tone

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. The NRA last year snuffed out two major gun-control measures in the U.S. Senate employing a similar grass-roots approach.

Nutritional advocates and USDA officials say privately that with the new SNA lobbyist came a new, tougher approach. SNA stopped working through the executive branch and began pushing legislative fixes. In media calls, school directors told stories of food waste and dwindling bottom lines, all because of the new rules.

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

As the nutrition guidelines have come on line over the last two years, funding from various companies has been mixed.

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. 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.

Despite this financial support, the food companies have taken no position on the new lunch rules beyond saying they support nutritious food for schoolchildren.

"Our company has not taken a position on the proposed waiver," said Schwan's spokesman Mike Smith in an e-mail. "We also have not advocated for a waiver with any lawmakers. … Making nutritious school food is a responsibility that we take seriously. We stand by the quality and nutritional value of our foods."

General Mills spokesman Tom Forsythe said his company has taken no position on the waivers. He said that SNA does not speak for General Mills and SNA's positions are not synonymous with those of his company.

Districts put on divided line

Now more than ever, school districts depend on the food industry. With bigger schools, fewer lunch workers, and more meal demands before and after school, districts increasingly do less scratch cooking and rely more on precooked, ready-made food.

Amid that dynamic, the battle over the new lunch rules has bitterly divided the SNA and congressional lawmakers.

The legislative action in both chambers is stalled, in part, because of this debate. Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson, ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee, said he believes schools that need it deserve a measure of flexibility, but that he remains undecided on the waivers.

Helen Phillips, a former SNA president who runs school meal programs in Norfolk, Va., said "We need industry's support to do our jobs and we've always had associations with industry." However, she said, "I don't think a waiver is the best answer." Phillips is among 19 former SNA presidents urging lawmakers to vote against the waivers.

On the other side is Brenda Braulick, SNA branch president in Minnesota, who works for the Sartell-St. Stephen School District and supports the waivers.

"We're on the front lines and we're seeing what the kids eat," she said.

Ronnei, in St. Paul, said her school district is unable to serve familiar foods, such as white rice and white biscuits, because of the new whole-grain requirements.

"It limits creativity," she said. "Once in awhile we'd like to offer menu items that are unique and different. We believe in following the guidelines, but that doesn't mean it's meeting the needs for us."

Allison Sherry • 202-383-6120