School Nutrition Association Defends Its Position Paper Re: Changes to School Meals

by Bettina Elias Siegel on January 30, 2014

SNA logoYesterday I shared with you a Beyond Chron piece by school food advocate Dana Woldow (“School Nutrition Association Pushes Fruitless Position“), in which Woldow criticized a recent position paper released by the School Nutrition Association (“SNA”) calling for various changes to the new school meal regulations.  Among the modifications advocated by the SNA are: removing the new requirement that students take a fruit or vegetable with their meal; changes to the whole grain requirements; and extending the comment period for the interim final competitive food (school snack) regulations that are to go into effect this summer.

The SNA’s Director of Media Relations, Diane Pratt-Heavner, contacted me yesterday by email to share SNA’s response to Woldow’s piece (and it’s also published today in Beyond Chron).  Here it is in full:

In her January 27th article “School Nutrition Association [SNA] Pushes Fruitless Position,” Dana Woldow stated that the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) serves “over 31 million kids a day.” In fact, since the new nutrition standards for school meals went into effect in 2012, average daily participation in NSLP has dropped to 30 million.

One million fewer students chose school lunch each day despite constant efforts by SNA members to promote the healthier meals to students. As Woldow points out, SNA members “are hardworking individuals who care very much about kids and their health.” For many years, members have participated in countless SNA education sessionswebinarsculinary demonstrations and other programming to gain the latest research and tips for encouraging students to eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

For many school meal programs, the current regulations are financially unsustainable, and in today’s fiscal climate, Congress is unlikely to provide “additional funds” to support school meals as Woldow suggests. SNA members clearly support providing the healthiest possible meals for students, but to ensure overall sustainability of our nation’s child nutrition programs, Congress and USDA must provide these school nutrition professionals with greater menu planning flexibility.

Leah Schmidt, SNS
School Nutrition Association President
Director of Food and Nutrition Services for Hickman Mills C-1 School District (Missouri)

The SNA also published on its own website a press release regarding the position paper, which may be found here.

I’m going to leave this issue here for today, but in the coming days I’ll share here my own thoughts regarding some of SNA’s proposed changes to the school meal regulations, particularly the issue of requiring students to take fruits and vegetables.  And if you have your own thoughts on SNA’s recommendations, please share them below.  I especially welcome the input of school food professionals, who may always comment here anonymously.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

A Denton January 30, 2014 at 11:14 am

I’m sure that we can come up with a better solution to the problem that some schools don’t have the means to implement the new NSLP regulations, than to just allow everyone to fall to the lowest common denominator. Schools that have the means should be held to high standards, and schools that do not should be permitted to meet exemption requirements. This is an issue that is becoming more and more important to many very active Americans. If it is made known that training, awareness programs, and funding are all that is needed to bring certain schools up to healthier standards, we can mobilize to develop foundations to support the cause. It’s important to use this opportunity to encourage positive change, not to reject healthy habits on behalf of the status quo.

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coolernearlake February 1, 2014 at 12:00 pm

I’m sorry, I’m kind of with you up to the part about developing foundations to provide training, awareness programs and funding. Foundation grants won’t cut it. We need well funded support for all aspects of public education, including meal programs. Grants don’t often cover operating expenses, just whatever they consider “special!” You still gotta cover regular expenses somehow.
And please, don’t assume that the status quo rejects healthy habits! Most programs are trying very hard to provide the best possible nutrition under remarkably difficult circumstances.

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Martha January 30, 2014 at 3:27 pm

Encourage the “choice” of fruit or vegetables by making lots of different varieties available and then use the “offer vs. serve” rule of 3 of the 5 components, thus eliminating the “must take” and allowing a choice. It’s very discouraging to watch the amount of waste that is being produced and we are trying everything, slicing, dicing, shredding, cooked, uncooked, roasted, whole, it seems to be quite a losing situation. We can “offer” tons of options but when the students are not seeing these foods at home its a losing battle. An opinion from the trenches

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VAsnpdirector February 5, 2014 at 9:01 am

I agree wholeheartedly. School nutrition programs are held to standards that are not duplicated in any other segment of the food industry. School lunch and breakfast menus should be required to offer healthy options for all meal components and students should be allowed the choice under the previous regulation governing “Offer vs Serve”. This would allow all menu items to be produced and served in the quantities dictated by student preference, reducing program costs and food waste.

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Maggie January 31, 2014 at 5:47 pm

At this point, our department is OK financially, but I’m not sure it is sustainable long term. At least the food waste is composted, but that’s a very small bright spot. Martha has already mentioned the time and effort put into this. Is it the best use of our time and resources?

I’ve heard negative comments about how we are “forcing” the students to choose a fruit or vegetable – which they perceive is creating more waste – from other school staff. I have not heard any positive comments about the new regulations…nothing such as “Oh, how great that the students are getting more fruits and vegetables.”

To be honest, the vast majority of students did take fruit or vegetable (most often fruit) with the previous regulations. I work in an elementary school, so that might make a difference.

I would also like to respond to A Denton’s comment “if….training, awareness programs, and funding are all that is needed “.

Why, yes, indeed! All of those things would be very helpful. If only it was actually that simple to find, acquire, be given those things!

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Samantha February 5, 2014 at 6:02 am

In the original version of the HHFKA, the USDA ^^wisely^^ wrote that if we offer and require students to pick up these fruits/vegetables, they will eat them. I’m not sure to which students the USDA was referring, but not any of the ones in my district.

I was at a school one day last week and offered a 3rd grade girl a fork to eat her mandarin oranges and peas (with her hotdog). She smiled and said “it’s okay, I don’t need one, I’m not going to eat them.” This was at the exit of the serving line. She picked up what she was required to pick up (actually one component more) to satisfy the USDA rules we are enforcing with ZERO intention of putting either into her mouth.

I second Martha: if the children aren’t seeing these foods at home, or in retail settings, we aren’t going to be able to convince them to eat them no matter what we do or how appealing we make them.

Funding — needs to be across the board, not held hostage by free/reduced price percentages. It’s not politically correct, but lower eligibility districts are actually starved for funds much more than high eligibility districts. We rely on customer payments — from parents who already say that “school meals cost too much” (average of $2.50 per full meal). Too many grants require that a system have at least 50% free or reduced price as a qualifying step.

Hopefully we are not seeing the beginning of the demise of the school meals program, but I’m really worried.

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Front Lines February 5, 2014 at 7:41 am

As a food service supervisor you are able to see more of what goes on than most people who comment on these articles so I think comments coming from people who are on the front lines should be heard and taken at face value!

The plain fact is that “Making” students take either a fruit or veggie is not going to solve any problems and in fact it actually makes more problems than solves. The first problem is that we are losing students to fast food type meals because they do not want to take one of these options and they didn’t like the “power to choose” taken away from them! The next problem is the food waste! We sit by our garbage cans and see what is being thrown out and its a horrible site to watch. We try many….many different fruits and veggies presented in various ways to try to entice them to eat, even making fruit baskets out of melons and flowers out of tomatoes…..which adds hours of prep time to the work day and cost the schools money. Then after you do some of this to see it just thrown in the garbage is not very helpful to the staff who just spent time creating this and making it all look fantastic and then just tossed away!

The simple fact is that you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them drink…same principal holds true with students..you can force them to take something but you can’t make them eat it! If these students are not used to seeing fresh fruits and veggies at home on a regular basis when they are growing up…..BEFORE they start school they are not going to take and try them AT school! We need a “True” offer versus serve brought back to the schools to help us control our costs and waste each day!

Take it or leave it but this is what is happening in schools today because of this rule. The students who like and have always liked fruits and veggies are the ones who are benefiting, which is a very good thing for them, but for the majority who never did take fruits or veggies and probably never will when forced up on them…its a waste of time and money….but then again we are talking about the Federal Government and their specialty is wasting time and money so there you have it!

Last time I looked this is still American, land of the free and by that I mean freedom of choice……and taking the “choice” away from the students certainly won’t lead to them consuming more of what your forcing on to them! Trust us….we have heard and continue to hear this EVERY single day of school!

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Lunch lady February 5, 2014 at 9:27 pm

I agree with front lines. As a manager I have seen changes. The children do throw out a substantial amount of food. When the children are in the lunch line,( we have a very large breakfast and lunch program, and lunch is very fast paced)the teachers/tas are serving them as fast as they can, and the little ones can not always decide quickly what they might want to eat. So if they decide what is on their plate is not something they do not want to eat or they do not have a lot of time to eat, it gets dumped. The fruit and veggie program, if the don’t want it, don’t want to try it the stuff gets thrown out. I have seen this time after time, this happens mainly with veggies. The fruit is eaten better, but we have to give them a veggie. When you are a title 1 school it can be very upsetting, and it is upsetting when there isn’t ‘ anything that I can do. I do wish “school lunch” was not blamed for the children’s weight problems. Food habits do not start at school, nor lack of excersise. But someone has to take the blame I guess. I wish people on the outside would understand this. The money waisted that could go toward more equipment or being able to have more staff. I would love to have more hands.

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MichelleP February 11, 2014 at 1:51 pm

With over 33 years in Child Nutrition, I have seen various regulations come and go. As a school nutrition manager, I endured the years of putting butter and cheese on everything because USDA had tons of cheese to move in support of pricing for the dairy industry. I saw dried cherries, apricots and fig nuggets in abundant quantities being used in very creative ways, from making fruity “Earth Bread” to serving full cups of these “bonus” foods as trail mix.

I have also been fortunate enough to have moved from site management to district management and have witnessed the impact of regulatory changes on budgets for menu plans, equipment needs, personnel and bids, in both positive (implementing OVS) and negative (mandated 1/2 cup fruit/veg) ways.

It would seem to a prudent person that any required menu plan for schools, although well intentioned, that is in direct conflict with what’s happening at home is simply an opportunity for failure. Attempts to legislate social eating habits cannot come from a program like Child Nutrition. Our school programs don’t see the first child in a family until after well over 4000 meals have already been consumed, counting from birth to the child’s entrance into Kindergarten.

I’m certain I can safely say that very nearly every person employed in the field of Child Nutrition is absolutely committed to providing the most nutritious, well prepared meals possible in a clean, safe and friendly environment. But placing requirements on the meals’ contents without committing to the provision of a Nutrition Education programs which reaches well beyond the school setting out into the community will do nothing more than make for all that much more very nutritious, very expensive garbage.

I certainly hope that the “Powers That Be” are paying attention and are not so married to the new regulations that they cannot see the damage that is being done. Forcing school programs to choose between being sure that there are sufficient portions of expensive fruits and veggies available and offered vs having the funds to repair or replace a milk box or convection oven is somewhat akin to the old saying of “cutting off your nose to spite your face.”

Like any other business, we gain customers one at a time. And we lose them by the class-full. Our students have trusted us for many years to do the best we can for them. We have enjoyed the greatest gains in participation over the past four or five years. Now that participation is in decline. As a result, regaining the trust of the children and staff we serve will be very difficult to achieve.

I am not opposed to change…..I actually like change. It keeps things fresh. But change needs to serve the main goal of an organization. These new regs seem to be directed at serving the bottom line for privately owned and government supported fruit and veggie growers, packers and manufacturers. That’s not focus on our main goal of feeding children. It also cannot be called raising the bar on Child Nutrition. That is spending my program’s federal dollars on something other than what will serve children’s health and well being. And that is called big waste of federal money.

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Bettina Elias Siegel February 11, 2014 at 2:58 pm

MichelleP: I really appreciate the time you took to write this thoughtful comment and I have only the greatest respect for your 33 years in the field. Since I started this blog in 2010, I constantly wrestle, as a parent and as a person involved in school food reform, about the tension between what kids should be eating and what kids want to eat. When do decide it’s OK we cater to the latter and how do get them to accept the former?

We are in agreement that nutrition education HAS to be part of this equation, and that simply putting F&V on the line, or making kids take it, is not enough.

Thanks again for your comment, and I hope you’ll come back and share your thoughts in the future.

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Bettina Elias Siegel February 16, 2014 at 5:55 pm

And thanks also to the other school food professionals above who’ve taken the time to come here and leave their thoughts.

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