Stunning and Perverse: SNA Challenges a Study Finding That Kids Like Healthier School Food

by Bettina Elias Siegel on July 22, 2014

Imagine a restaurant getting a great review, only to have the chef call the newspaper to complain that the critic was sorely mistaken and the restaurant’s food isn’t as good as the review made it out to be.

That bizarre scenario was all I could think of when I received an email yesterday from the School Nutrition Association (SNA), relaying SNA president Julia Bauscher’s refutation of a new, peer-reviewed study in Childhood Obesity finding that kids actually like the healthier school food mandated by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA).

Specifically, University of Illinois at Chicago researchers asked school administrators at 537 elementary schools about their students’ reactions to school meals after the HHFKA’s nutritional improvements went into effect.  Just over half of the respondents said their students initially complained about nutritionally improved school meals, but 70% agreed their students now actually like the lunches.  Even more encouraging, the study found that at socioeconomically disadvantaged schools (where school meals are of obvious, critical importance to student health), administrators perceived that “more students were buying lunch and that students were eating more of the meal than in the previous year.”

For anyone who cares about school food reform and the health of America’s school children, these findings are great news.

But, perversely, this good news actually poses a serious threat to the SNA, the nation’s largest organization of school food professionals.  That’s because, despite having supported the HHFKA’s passage back in 2010, the SNA is now fighting vigorously to roll back in Congress many of the law’s key nutritional requirements — and it is doing so on the grounds that kids are allegedly rejecting healthier school food en masse.

The organization has so become entrenched in promoting this pessimistic view of student acceptance (despite contrary evidence from school districts around the country), that it raised eyebrows even among some of its own members by refusing to allow Sam Kass, former White House chef and Executive Director of Let’s Move!, to speak at its annual national conference in Boston last week.  And the SNA previously saw 19 of its past presidents break ranks in an open letter to Congress — an extraordinary, public display of the internal strife over the SNA’s current legislative agenda.

It was hard for me to imagine the situation getting much uglier, until yesterday’s email presented the truly bizarre spectacle of the very people dedicated to preparing healthful school meals seeking to discredit reliable evidence that kids actually like those meals.

I’m disgusted and saddened by this turn of events.  Back in May, I wrote a post (“School Food Professionals vs. Kids: How Did It Come to This?) to convey my respect and empathy for school food service directors (FSDs) around the country, who I sincerely believe have one of the hardest jobs imaginable.  Through no fault of FSDs, the National School Lunch Program, as it is currently conceived, often directly pits their legitimate financial concerns against the nutritional needs of the children they serve. But instead of trying to bridge that gap by fighting for funding and other support for struggling school districts, the SNA, which claims in its mission statement to be “committed to advancing the quality of school meal programs,” chose to take the easy way out.

Just imagine how differently things would look today if the SNA had decided to stay the course on healthier school food. Instead of engaging in an unseemly, public battle with the White House, the organization could be closely allied with a still-hugely popular First Lady to jointly advance the cause of improved school nutrition, able to take advantage of all the prime PR opportunities only someone like Michelle Obama can offer.  Instead of using its considerable muscle on Capitol Hill to weaken or kill hard-fought legislative gains, the SNA could be using its clout to push Congress into helping the schools that need it.  And instead of churlishly lobbing criticism at this latest school food study, it could rely on the study to support its efforts — as well as joining with the rest of us in celebrating what is, unequivocally, very good news.

Nonetheless, despite this study’s encouraging findings, I’ll be keeping my champagne on ice.  Because regardless of what happens with SNA’s desired one-year waiver language in the pending 2015 appropriations bill, the 2015 Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR) is looming large and the SNA clearly views the CNR as its best chance to permanently roll back key HHFKA nutrition standards relating to sodium, whole grains, fruits and vegetables and a la carte offerings.

So, all those elementary school kids* who grew accustomed to — and eventually grew to like — healthier school food?  If the SNA has its way, they might not be seeing it for much longer.

_________________

* Many of us in the school food reform world have long predicted that elementary school kids would be the first to come around to healthier school food because they haven’t had years of seeing junk food in their cafeterias. More here: “Putting My Money on the Class of 2024.”

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Lunch Lady July 22, 2014 at 8:29 am

*sigh*

Yes, I was one of the ones that saw a 7% drop in high school participation in the 2012-2013 school year.

However, in the 2013-2014 school year, my high school participation went back up to where it was in 2011-2102.

My kids just needed time and encouragement. I needed to redesign menus, survey students, and capitalize/expand on what DID work.

SNA does make a good point about cost … while my participation is back to where it was, my food costs are about 25% higher (some due to the new requirements, some due to weather/gas/transportation/etc). It has made my program overall less profitable.

6 cents doesn’t even BEGIN to cover the extra expense of an additional 1/2 cup of fruit, 1/2 cup of vegetable, and whole grain rich vs. white grain (mine is even higher cost since I decided to do fresh fruit and vegetables as at least one 1/2 cup serving a day).

Honestly, last year even while my participation was back up to it’s previously level, I lost money in my lunch program. What kept me afloat was my breakfast program, where I made money to support the initiatives I was doing in my lunch program to bring the participation back up. Next year, with having to spend for an additional 1/2 cup of fruit and whole grain rich, I’m very concerned my breakfast program won’t break even … much less provide me with the extra funding to keep my lunch program from running me into the black.

While I support the new regulations, we need to be properly funded to fully implement them.

Off my soapbox …

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Wendy July 22, 2014 at 9:42 am

You can’t make this stuff up.

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Frustrated July 22, 2014 at 9:56 am

I agree with the comment above. As an operator, the effects of these unfunded mandates are crushing our financial health and making it close to impossible to serve the food we all want.

This year we are required to offer 1 cup of fruit at breakfast, with NO additional funding. Many breakfast programs are simply going to disappear due to cost.

Advocates for healthier foods need to do more to advocate for funding for our programs. The SNA is supporting its members who are getting constantly pelted by advocates for “healthier foods”. With kitchens built in the 60’s and no money to remodel them, most schools can not cook from scratch.

Support real reform with the $$$ to support it so we can all get the change we want.

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Bettina Elias Siegel July 22, 2014 at 10:30 am

Frustrated – are you “frustrated” with me? I can’t quite tell from this comment, but I couldn’t agree with you more. It’s not enough to just expect schools to serve healthier food. They need additional funding to buy AND prepare such food, which includes facilities upgrades where needed, and they need support in terms of nutrition education and other efforts to help ease kids into the new meals. None of which Congress provided for with the HHFKA’s 6 cents. All I’m saying here is: why isn’t SNA of all organizations asking for all of that, instead of seeking to roll back nutrition standards that are scientifically sound and desperately needed in an era of both childhood obesity and childhood hunger?

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Cammy July 22, 2014 at 11:59 am

Great question! Because the SNA is similiar to the GMA – they want to sell their processed, GMO-laden food to schools and profit. They don’t want schools to partner up with local bakeries, and farms. But that’s what we NEED to do. Our government and big AG reflect the politics of food in schools. If we can try to reverse that we will see big changes in our kids health and eating habits.

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Frustrated July 22, 2014 at 11:31 pm

Frustrated with comment’s like Cammy’s. What makes you think schools don’t want to partner up with local business? They are often 2 to 3 times the cost, and on $3.00, its not feasible.

SNA had very valid points about the study, it was all anecdotal, not based on facts.

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Lauren July 22, 2014 at 10:24 am

Hello everyone! I found this site while researching for a persuasive paper I was writing on how to get schools to serve healthier food.

In my school district, and I know you’ve mentioned it before, things such as “slow churned dreyers” and “lays baked chips” are served to maintain the “healthy” image that my school is going for. As for the entrees, pizza is availible every single day along with bad tasting sandwiches, chicken nuggets, hamburgers, and the like.

Not to say there isn’t a salad bar; there is, but we have the standard iceberg lettuce with a creamy dressing type of fare.

I, for one, have been bringing my lunches from home because I much prefer to cook my own lunches then to eat the junk that my school district tries to pass off.

When I first moved to this school district in elementary school, it was a bit worse- dessert was served with every meal.

But in their attempts to be healthier, my school district is teaching kids that if you bake a chip of slow churn ice cream it’s automatically healthy.

When kids come out of high school, why would they be motivated to cook their own food when they know they can get some baked chips and still be healthy?

My school district and districts everywhere are teaching the wrong message.

If my school were to offer fresh, local produce and well prepared meals, I might consider buying.

I also imagine all those kids who are on the reduced price meal program that can’t eat anything else.

Thank you so much for stepping in to try to help. I’m passionate about getting healthy food into schools. I know I’m just a sophomore in high school. It will take a majority to change this!

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wendy lesko July 28, 2014 at 9:51 am

Bravo Lauren for voicing your outrage. If you can mobilize a small group of equally passionate students, one suggestion might be to first try to improve the slim pickings at your salad bar. We can brainstorm other strategies to get rid of the cardboard pizza etc.

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Frustrated July 22, 2014 at 10:27 am

I agree with the first commenter whole heartedly.

We all want to give kids the absolute best we can.

But food costs money. These new regulations cost money, we were only given $0.06. Have you tried to buy one piece of organic fruit for $0.06?

Schools are required to break even. Now we are required to offer 1 cup of fruit at breakfast, with no additional funding. That takes money away from being able to produce “better food”.

Advocates for change need to advocate for realistic funding.

Tell me where you can buy a “healthy” lunch for $3.06.

The study surveyed Principals. Most Principals do not have the time to spend in the cafeteria watching whether or not the kids actually eat their food. And even if the kids like the food more, what do all those parents carting in the cupcakes, cake and soda for every holiday known to man teach the kids? Or the teachers throwing the candy to the student for answering a math question right? Or the teachers refusing to take milk on the field trips because the kids don’t like it?

We need real change, with real support.

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Cammy July 22, 2014 at 11:57 am

Where are our priorities in Washington? Healthy school lunches can EASILY be funded, and the money is there. Wealthy politicians still have an antiquated view of school lunches as a handout – part of the social welfare system. Other countries don’t feel that way. Take Italy and France – where healthy lunches are prepared for their students every day. It’s all about priorities. It’s not realistic to expect parents who work full time to always make lunches with vegetables, fruits and a hot side…. sure it does happen, but the school is the perfect place to cook real food, and have all students eat the food. It’s positive peer pressure to have kids all garden, and taste the vegetables they grew. So until the white house and big ag/food corporations stop this unhealthy relationship, it will be an uphill battle to reform many school lunches and make them the best they can be.

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Laura July 22, 2014 at 12:46 pm

I couldn’t agree with you more. I am an SNA member (director) and a professional chef and find it despicable. They say they are for healthy foods but more and more they take sponsorship and kick backs from some of the biggest processed food companies. I attended 1 day of the conference and found that 85% of what was exhibited was not real food. Chicken fingers, patties and pizza galore. For a long time they have talked out of both sides of their mouths now they are starting to show their true colors. The HHKA changes were needed and it was easy for some to be in compliance. They need to put their energy towards learning how cook and serve “actual food”. Our youth depends on it. Healthy eating is life skill that a lot of kids arenot exposed to. It is up to us as professionals to give them the exposure.

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Maggie July 22, 2014 at 3:46 pm

Apologies in advance for an assortment of somewhat unrelated comments & questions:

Is it normal to pay people to respond in surveys like this? That caught my eye as I read the info about the study.

Is common to use perception rather than more concrete info in this type of study?

Bettina, you said “Just imagine how differently things would look…”. I’m wondering how you think it would look. Do you think we would have been provided with the funding needed?

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