School Food Professionals vs. Kids: How Did It Come to This?

by Bettina Elias Siegel on May 20, 2014

When I walked into my first Houston ISD School Food Services Parent Advisory Committee meeting, I knew next to nothing about school food except that my district seemed to be doing a pretty poor job of preparing it. But in the intervening four years, in which I educated myself about the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), started this blog, continued to work closely with my district, and also met school food professionals around the country, I’ve come to believe that there are few jobs on this planet harder than managing a district’s school food program.

School food directors have to contend on a daily basis with extremely tight budgetary constraints, reams of regulations, innumerable logistical issues and the intense pressure of retaining student participation in the program, all while dealing with a lot of well-meaning (but generally uninformed) parents who want to tell them how to do their job.  While some school food out there is still worthy of criticism, I have only the greatest respect for those willing to take on this challenge.

But now school food professionals, under their umbrella organization, the School Nutrition Association, are leading the charge against many of the hard-won school food improvements of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA).  Specifically, the SNA is asking to: keep the level of whole grains in the total number of grain foods served at 25%; avoid further reductions in sodium; eliminate the requirement that kids take fruit or a vegetable with their meal (returning to the old system in which kids could — and often did — pass up those healthful foods); and allow schools to sell on a daily basis a la carte items like pizza and fries, as opposed to the current plan which would allow these items to be sold only on the same day they appeared on the main lunch line. This means kids could (and likely will) make an entire meal out of such foods on a regular basis, without the addition of items like milk, fruit and vegetables to nutritionally round out the meal.

Meanwhile, there are also efforts in Congress to pass a law under which schools could simply ignore any requirement of the HHFKA if compliance would result in increased cost.  Since most districts do have to spend more to pay for healthier food, such a bill, if enacted, would be the death of the HHFKA.  While the SNA has told me it’s not “taking a position” on this pending legislation, it certainly hasn’t said anything to oppose it.  

School food reform advocates, myself included, are deeply worried about these developments and we’ve begun to ratchet up our response to SNA’s efforts on social media.  And, predictably, I’m now seeing some scuffling on Twitter between the two sides in which each accuses the other of not really caring about kids.

But how did this debate devolve into an either/or proposition in which school food professionals are pitted against the very children they serve with such dedication?

Many of my fellow food advocates have pointed to the fact that the SNA takes a significant amount of money from corporate “patrons” like ConAgra and PepsiCo, and they therefore allege that SNA’s entire effort is being directed by Big Food.  I, too, dislike the fact that  SNA takes handouts from the food and beverage industries, and I have no doubt that these industries have driven or supported at least some of SNA’s goals.  For example, SNA previously requested (USDA denied the request) that schools be allowed to delay for one year the implementation of the new “Smart Snacks in Schools” rules.  That request certainly aligned well with the interests of manufacturers faced with reformulating all of those “Smart Snacks.”  Similarly, Big Food likely also supports the cap on sodium reductions (salt is 1/3 of Big Food’s palatability arsenal; see: Michael Moss’s Salt Sugar Fat) as well as the requested change to a la carte rules (who profits from all that frozen pizza schools want to serve every day?)

But just because some of SNA’s goals align with Big Food’s doesn’t mean there aren’t other reasons why SNA is asking for these changes.  And these other reasons are entirely logical and legitimate — if you look at running a school food program solely as a business.

Just think about it:  if you were trying to balance a very tight budget in an operation which lives or dies based on how well students accept your food, and if many (sometimes, the vast majority) of those students came from homes in which nutritionally balanced, home cooked meals are far from the norm, and if the food industry was bombarding those kids with almost $2 billion a year in advertising promoting junk food and fast food, and if you had no money of your own for nutrition education to even begin to counter those messages, and if some of those kids also had the option of going off campus to a 7-11 or grabbing a donut and chips from a PTA fundraising table set up down the hall, wouldn’t you, too, be at least a tiny bit tempted to ramp up the white flour pasta, pizza and fries and ditch the tasteless, low-sodium green beans?

It would take an entire book to explain how flawed the NSLP has become, how, starting in the 1970s and 80s, the program morphed from an anti-hunger initiative into one in which school districts were so starved of cash by the federal government (thank you, Ronald Reagan) that school children came to be seen as “customers” whose palates must be pleased at all costs, with heavier reliance on junk food a la carte sales and “carnival food” menus. (And there is such a book, by the way, which is excellent:  Free for All: Fixing School Food in America.)  But because of those flaws, we now find ourselves in a situation in which the health of school children and the financial burdens placed on school food service directors do not properly align.

And yet, to quote Donald Rumsfeld, “You go to war with the army you have.”  So if this is the system under which we operate and I’m forced to choose a side, then I have no choice but to side with the kids.  31 million economically disadvantaged kids rely on school meals five days a week for breakfast and lunch (and sometimes even supper) and for those kids, what we put on those trays really matters.  It matters not only for the needed nutrition but also the implicit education school meals provide.  When kids can buy and eat garbage like this from their very own school cafeteria, they are without a doubt imbibing the message that this (or this) is what a meal should look like.  And that harmful messaging sets them up for a lifetime of health-related problems.

This is not theoretical, by the way.  Only two years into the new meal improvements, the Harvard School of Public Health has already found that the new school food standards have significantly increased kids’ fruit and vegetable consumption.  Just think where we might be in five years, or ten, if we can only stay the course.

The real moral failing of the SNA is not that it’s trying to protect the interests of its members, which is its mission, after all, but that it’s doing so through the path of least resistance.  Instead of asking Congress to throw in the towel on healthier school food, why isn’t the SNA asking for more help in serving that food?  We’ve known from the start that the HHFKA was grossly underfunded, so why isn’t the SNA getting in there and fighting hard for more money, logistical help, better kitchen equipment, nutrition education and all of the other factors that would support better school meals?

Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokesperson for the SNA, told me in prior correspondence that:

Although SNA is emphasizing the extremely limited funding under which school meal programs must operate, members of Congress and their staff on both sides of the aisle from key authorizing committees have made it extremely clear that additional funding will not be available for child nutrition programs as part of reauthorization.  It’s important to keep in mind that Congress has just cut funding for SNAP and advocates for child nutrition programs will need to fight to protect current funding in this difficult budget environment.

That all may be true, and what I’m suggesting might well be a doomed effort.  But even as we speak, the SNA is proving (to school food reform advocates’ dismay) that its voice carries a lot of weight on Capitol Hill.

So why isn’t it willing to step up and try?

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Martha May 20, 2014 at 1:30 pm

Well said again Bettina. I will add that during the 34 years that I’ve served my school children, I have not allowed commercialism to change my focus of serving healthy foods to my students. If McDonalds was serving fajitas, I created a recipe using my ingredients to make that fajita. My students this year let me know that the whole grain pizza we were serving, (using a frozen crust and our sauce and cheese) was “like cardboard”, I set out to create with them as testers, my own whole grain crust. We have strived this year to provide all sorts of variety in fruits and vegetables. We serve very little a la carte options…if you aren’t “making it a reimbursible meal” what’s the point? It takes some thinking outside the box but the rules can and should be followed….thanks for all you do to support school meals and school children.

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Bettina Elias Siegel May 20, 2014 at 2:12 pm

Martha: The children in your school or district are truly fortunate to have such a dedicated and thoughtful person at the helm. I especially like “if you aren’t “making it a reimbursible meal” what’s the point?” since many districts don’t feel that way, which only increases the sense of stigma many kids feel when they’re financially dependent on the federal meal and can’t access the often better food in the a la carte line. Thank you for commenting here and keep up the good work!

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Mark Johnson May 20, 2014 at 3:19 pm

If you zoom out even further, it gets even more depressing. In the endless, exhausting chase to meet standardized testing pressures, graduation rate pressure, and attendance pressures (in which funding is tied to students being in school, not what, how or if they learn), there so much more that is sacrificed than just nutrition. College counseling, fine arts, P.E., electives, class sizes…. I am going be to honest, unless there is a massive change in the state’s priorities, or a massive mobilization of third party funding and skilled advisory groups coming along side and getting in schools, I don’t see the food changing at the district or campus level. It is just not an urgent priority in the financing of school s or career metrics of anyone at the local level.

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Lunch Lady May 21, 2014 at 8:40 am
Martha May 22, 2014 at 12:29 pm

And just to vent a bit….I’ve limited my students to one snack per day…..scratch made cookies (made with whole grains, butter and fresh eggs), an assortment of baked chips or small NYS approved ice cream choices)…imagine my dismay when students went through the lunch line today with dozens of Krispy Kreme donuts…when asked where they were from, the response was “It was a fundraiser”. URGH what is my role here???? Thanks for listening.

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