If you’ve been following the fight over school food, you know that the School Nutrition Association (SNA), the nation’s leading organization of school food professionals, is the main force behind current efforts to weaken the new healthier meal standards. It’s a rather surprising position for an organization with the stated mission of “advancing the quality of school meal programs,” especially since the SNA itself supported the healthy meal standards when they were first adopted back in 2010.
The organization’s stunning about-face was examined in depth in a New York Times story last fall; the factors leading to the reversal include a recent change in SNA’s leadership and its choice of a new lobbying firm. Another factor is the SNA’s cozy relationship with Big Food, which funds at least half of the organization’s operating budget. For more on that troubling arrangement, be sure to read this Beyond Chron piece by school food reformer Dana Woldow, this HuffPo piece by food advocate Nancy Huenergarth, and this critical post from Food Politics‘ Marion Nestle.
The SNA maintains that its position is justified because kids just aren’t eating the healthier school meals, causing districts to waste food and lose revenue. That’s an appealing argument, but when Woldow probed more deeply into SNA’s own data, she found that the decline in school meal revenue started well before the new healthier meal standards were adopted. Consistent with Woldow’s findings, the Food Research and Action Center recently released a study which found that the recession and an increase in school meal prices have been the true forces driving paying students from school meal programs. Meanwhile, among kids on free and reduced price lunch — i.e., the ones who need the most nutritious meals possible — meal participation has actually increased.
Nonetheless, the SNA is likely to get a sympathetic hearing in a Republican Congress during this year’s Child Nutrition Reauthorization (or CNR), which funds the school meal program every five years. Indeed, during the 2015 appropriations process at the end of last year, the SNA found allies among several conservative legislators, including Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL), who, at the organization’s behest, sponsored a “waiver” provision to weaken nutrition standards.
But not all SNA members agree with their leadership. Last May, nineteen past SNA presidents took the extraordinary step of breaking with the current SNA board by writing their own open letter to Congress urging it to stay the course on healthier school food. (You can read my interview with one of these 19 past presidents, Dora Rivas, here.)
Yet there was no way for ordinary SNA members who also disagreed with their board to have their voices heard in this debate. So Nancy Huehnergarth and I created an open letter for any interested SNA members to sign, which I posted it The Lunch Tray last October. It was a move that clearly rattled the SNA leadership: within just 24 hours of my posting the letter, the board sent an “urgent message” to its entire 55,000 member base urging them not to sign it. The clear implication of SNA’s “urgent message” was that anyone who did sign was not a team player and would seriously undermine the organization.
Nonetheless, despite this pressure from the SNA board, 86 courageous school food directors still stepped forward to sign. (Their names may be seen here.) The final, signed letter was sent yesterday to the SNA board by Miguel Villarreal, director of food and nutrition services for the Novato Unified School District in Novato, California, and Allyson Mrachek, nutrition supervisor at Fayetteville Public Schools in Fayetteville, Arkansas. The letter reads:
We, the undersigned members of the SNA, respectfully urge the Board of Directors to withdraw support for any provision in Agriculture Appropriations or other legislation that would waive school nutrition standards.
We are deeply concerned that the reputation of our organization and its members are being damaged by the ongoing requests to weaken or waive school nutrition standards. While we agree that some aspects of the updates to the standards are challenging, we favor targeted and constructive solutions that do not involve Congress waiving school meal or snack standards.
We urge the Board to work with USDA and other stakeholders to identify and adopt solutions to challenges encountered by school food professionals.. We also encourage SNA to work with USDA to pair districts, which are succeeding, with those that are struggling in order to assist districts in continuing to move forward.
Thank you for your consideration of our concerns. We stand ready to support you as you identify practical and long-term solutions that serve both the needs of school districts and the health of our schoolchildren.
If the SNA responds to this letter, I’ll certainly share its statement here.
Finally, if you are a past or current SNA member and would like to stand with these 86 brave men and women, Nancy and I have created a nearly identical version of the letter which now speaks to the upcoming CNR. The link to this new letter is here, and any new signatures it garners will be added to the current count.
Please consider signing and sharing this letter with your colleagues to stand up for healthier school meals at this most critical time. Thank you.
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