The School Nutrition Association (SNA), the nation’s largest organization of school food professionals, is currently lobbying Congress to weaken federal school meal standards regarding whole grains, sodium and fruits and vegetables. The SNA also opposes aspects of the new “Smart Snacks” rules which have improved the snacks and other “competitive foods” sold on school campuses.
But not all members of the SNA agree with the organization’s legislative agenda. Nineteen past SNA presidents took the extraordinary step in May of breaking with the association’s leadership by writing their own open letter to Congress urging it to stay the course on healthier school food. I and other school food advocates have also personally communicated with food service directors around the country who similarly disagree with the SNA’s position.
So in a Lunch Tray post last Thursday, I told SNA members about an open letter now circulating which acknowledges that some districts are having trouble meeting the new school food standards but which respectfully asks the association’s leadership to reconsider its approach in addressing these challenges.
Within 24 hours of my post, SNA sent this “urgent message” to its members pressuring them not to sign the letter.
Before I address SNA’s response, let me first answer some questions I’ve received about the origins and purpose of the open letter.
The letter was created by food policy advocate Nancy Huehnergarth and me, in consultation with other advocates and food service directors. Nancy and I both have experience spearheading social media campaigns and we are strong supporters of school food reform. SNA’s leadership employs a public relations staff and a high-powered lobbying firm to make its views known, so we created the open letter to offer any interested SNA members a mechanism to express their concerns about those views.
In the end, though, whether the letter garners many signatures or only a few has nothing to do with who created it. The final signature count will depend on how many school food professionals both endorse the letter’s message and feel comfortable publicly attaching their name to it.
Yet SNA’s “urgent message” was clearly designed to make any school food director think long and hard about adding his or her name to this letter. The clear import of the communication is that anyone who does so is not a team player and will seriously undermine the organization. That sort of pressure casts doubt on the organization’s reassurances that it welcomes its members’ “thoughts and concerns.”
Moreover, as a feature article in yesterday’s New York Times Sunday magazine made clear, SNA and its lobbyists on Capitol Hill are already deeply entrenched in their strategy to roll back healthier school food requirements. Any individual SNA members who object to this plan have already been overridden by their organization’s leadership. At this stage, only collective, public dissent is likely to receive any attention from SNA’s board.
But school food directors who do have the courage to sign the letter may now face uncomfortable pressure from their fellow SNA members. On Thursday Dayle Hayes, a prominent SNA supporter, requested in a comment on The Lunch Tray and its Facebook page that Nancy and I divulge the identities of the men and women who have already signed the letter. Hayes insists that this disclosure is necessary “in the interest of transparency and integrity,” despite the fact that petition platforms like Change.org don’t engage in this practice (without signers’ express consent) and that the identities of prior signers have no relevance whatsoever to the content of the letter. In a follow-up comment Hayes’s assures us that she is “not trying to intimidate anyone,” but her request, having no rational basis that we can think of, raises a serious red flag. Accordingly, Nancy and I will not release the signatures until the sign-on period closes on November 30, 2014.
Finally, one SNA member commenting on The Lunch Tray likened our open letter to two outsiders inappropriately interfering in a “family dispute.” While it’s true that our letter relates to the activities of an organization of which Nancy and I are not members, let’s not forget that SNA’s lobbying efforts, if successful, will have an impact extending well beyond the organization’s “family” of 55,000 school food workers.
Fully 30 million American children eat school meals, and 19 million of them do so out of economic need. And all of us, whether we have children who eat school food or not, have a stake in this program. Not only do we pay for it with almost $12 billion tax dollars per year, but we will collectively bear the healthcare costs arising from this generation’s poor dietary habits and troubling rates of childhood obesity and related illnesses.
So I would argue that not only do all of us have the right to express our views about SNA’s campaign to weaken school food standards, we have an affirmative obligation to advocate against that agenda. If the open letter Nancy and I created plays even a small role in raising questions about, or drawing attention to, SNA’s plan to roll back healthier school meal requirements, then I’ll consider the letter a successful effort regardless of how many people ultimately sign it.
[Ed. Update 10/14/14: A companion post by Nancy Huehnergarth may now be found on The Hill’s Congress Blog.]
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