Yesterday I attended a Houston ISD Nutrition Services Parent Advisory Committee meeting, something I’ve done almost every month during the school year for the last four and a half years. And while I sat through the various presentations, I reflected on how much my feelings about school food professionals have changed since I walked into my first PAC meeting in 2010.
Back then, my attitude toward the food services department could fairly be called “openly hostile.” I knew nothing of how school food programs operated but I did know that what was being served in my kids’ elementary school cafeteria was really dismal. If HISD’s school food professionals cared at all about kids, how could they possibly serve food like that?
But since then I’ve learned a tremendous amount about the complexities and challenges of running a school food program, which I recently referred to as one of the hardest jobs on the planet. I’ve also come to personally know and like many of the people now running HISD’s Nutrition Services department, as well as many other school food professionals around the country. As a result, with every reform I seek on behalf of kids, I now can’t help but see other side of the coin: how those improvements will impact (often negatively) the people doing their best to keep their meal programs afloat.
And for a long time now, I’ve wondered if this knowledge is such a good thing. I do believe that to be an effective advocate for any cause, it’s essential to understand the challenges faced by key decision makers. But at the same time I worry that this newfound empathy has caused me to lose some of the angry fire that motivated me to get involved in the first place. I find myself holding my tongue over problems in my own district that the old Bettina would surely have challenged, and I wonder if I’ve been co-opted.
So that’s why I wanted to share a recent exchange on The Lunch Tray’s Facebook page. I had just shared a TLT post criticizing “copycat snacks,” i.e., “better-for-you” junk food like Atomic Cheez-Its that schools can still sell a la carte under the new Smart Snacks rules. Jeanne Reilly, a school nutrition director, responded:
As a school nutrition director, I will weigh in here for a moment. . . . If school nutrition was funded appropriately, there would be no need to sell items outside of the meal program, but …until that day, when we are actually funded appropriately to meet the new & changing federal guidelines, we will have to continue to sell a la carte foods , and we have to sell what meets the guidelines and what students want… and what they can afford. Please understand the real complexities of school nutrition programs, inside and out before blaming the poor state of student nutrition on the SNP at your child’s school. . . .
I found myself almost nodding in agreement with Jeanne, fully understanding the financial challenges she’s facing and why she feels the need to sell this highly processed junk food. It’s the same reason I’ve let myself turn a blind eye to the sale of similar packaged snack items in HISD, as well as our district’s sale of all natural “juice slushies” which, though no longer neon-colored, are still incredibly sugary beverages no child needs to be drinking.
But then school nutrition director Barb Mechura responded. (I’ve added paragraph breaks for ease of reading):
As a school nutrition director, I will weigh in also.
We do not need these products to balance our budgets. Do kids like them, yes. Should schools serve them – generally speaking, no. It is incredibly difficult to develop children’s taste preferences for real food vs heavily processed and marketed food, but it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do it, and the level of difficulty shouldn’t be our excuse for us to continue to operate our school nutrition programs as we have.
“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” Socrates
We are all looking at this from our rearview mirror, rather than out the front windshield – when we realize that we need to take our children’s health back into our hands and accept our role as adults and setting limits and expectations about what our children will learn to eat? If we approach the situation with a continued and unrelenting expectation that we WILL find ways to help them fall in love with fruits, vegetables and whole grains – we WILL indeed find ways to remove barriers, and we will change their relationship with food.
There are many, many opportunities outside of schools for children to find and choose these [junk] foods. When they find them offered in schools, there is a message that we are sending them and it’s not moderation – it is over-consumption.
If we placed awesomely-tasty chocolate chip cookies on your desk, on your credenza, on your car dashboard, on your cupboard at home, in your bedroom, in your basement – do you think you would have the will power to resist throughout the entire day? Or, would you decide to have one, which might then lead to another because it tasted so darn good, then to another, and yet still another?
This is not about willpower. Their not-yet-fully developed brains – are held hostage to the constant exposure to these foods, both inside and outside of school. We are sending our youth, our teachers, our administration subliminal messages by what we offer in a very trusted American institution. Then we complain about what the students get in the classroom, of how hard it is to compete with all the junk food in the classroom. What’s the definition of insanity…?
[Wild applause and a standing ovation from this blogger.]
The thing is, we shouldn’t need to have to choose between kids’ health and the needs of school food professionals. We shouldn’t have to fund meal programs through the sale of sugary slushies and Atomic Cheez-Its. Schools shouldn’t be burdened with mandates to serve healthier school food without adequate funding for that food. They shouldn’t be expected to please kids weaned on junk food without resources like nutrition education to ease the transition.
All of that takes money, however, and the only voice capable of asking for that money from Congress is the School Nutrition Association. But, to use Barb’s metaphor, the SNA has chosen to look in the rear view mirror by not asking for that funding, instead seeking to roll back science-based nutrition standards, as well as opposing the Smart Snacks rules and reasonable curbs on junk food school fundraising. It isn’t looking through the windshield to seek the resources that would help schools — and students — move forward.
If you’re an SNA member who feels the same way, please consider signing and sharing this open letter. And, on my end, I just want to thank Barb for reminding me why I got into this area in the first place — and of where we need to go.
Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 9,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page, join over 5,000 TLT followers on Twitter, or get your “Lunch” delivered right to your email inbox by subscribing here. And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”