Back in the spring of 2010, I’d just become involved in school food reform in my children’s district and was looking around for a book to help me better understand the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). It was my good fortune that only a few weeks before, the perfect book had just been published — Free for All: Fixing School Food in America by Janet Poppendieck, a Hunter College sociology professor.
Reading Free for All was a revelation. Suddenly, the many mysteries of my children’s cafeteria made perfect sense, even if they were still dismaying. Pepperoni pizza served with mashed potatoes and desserts served daily? As Poppendieck explained in her book, back then the USDA was still imposing calorie minimums on schools, a legacy of the NSLP’s original purpose as an anti-hunger initiative in the 1940s. Ice cream sandwiches and chips being sold to kids as young as kindergarten-aged? Poppendieck’s book explained how and why school food programs had come to rely on “a la carte” sales just to break even.
But most importantly, I think, reading Free for All instilled in me from day one a profound sense of empathy for school food professionals, empathy which has only increased as I’ve formed relationships within my own district’s Nutrition Services department and virtual relationships via this blog with school food workers around the country. More than once I’ve said here “that there are few jobs on this planet harder than managing a district’s school food program” and I’ve tried hard to explain to disgruntled parents the external forces which make the job so difficult. The fact that not only parents but school food professionals regularly read and comment on The Lunch Tray is one of my proudest blogging achievements.
So when Poppendieck herself came by The Lunch Tray yesterday and took me to task for some things I’ve recently written about the School Nutrition Association (SNA), the nation’s leading organization of school food professionals, you can imagine how hard that criticism hit home. It was like having a revered teacher give you a failing grade in the course you love the most.
Poppendieck’s comment responds to a post in which I expressed concern over a letter from SNA’s newly-elected president, Jean Ronnei. I interpreted Ronnei’s letter as supporting SNA’s current legislative agenda, which I and other advocates view as a misguided weakening of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) school food standards. Here’s Poppendieck’s comment in full:
I don’t think it is quite fair to characterize Ronnei’s reply as “business as usual.” I believe her election represents a real turn at SNA toward its historic role as a primary supporter of healthier, better, and more sustainable food for our school children. I don’t think we can achieve this goal without SNA, and Jean Ronnei’s move into the leadership role is a giant step in the right direction. Her many years of stellar work in Saint Paul speaks volumes, and we need to support her as she tries to meet the needs of her association’s members while seeking to lead the organization out of the destructive role it has occupied in the last few years.
I’m really distressed that the whole notion “flexibility” has come to signify ditching the HHFK standards. I have heard from food service directors who support the standards, whose schools were early adopters–and are certainly among the 95 % that are in full compliance–that they encounter problems in implementation that interfere with achievement of the underlying goal (healthier food, healthier kids). This is likely to be true of virtually any new set of regulations, and something akin to “flexibility” is very much needed. If we can no longer call it flexibility, perhaps we need another word. “Wiggle room” seems undignified, so I propose “grace.” USDA, I think, has generally tried to embody this attitude, but food service professionals may face very difficult challenges from their state administrative agencies if they are not in formal compliance with the regulations. I can understand, therefore, their effort to get some sort of legal protection.
I think that the larger good food community needs to stop demonizing SNA and listen a bit more carefully to just what food service folks are saying about how this is working out on the ground, and what they need to make it work better. The call for more resources for equipment and a more realistic reimbursement rate are not excuses for non-compliance. These are real, pressing needs in many districts. HHFK has made a big difference. We need to unite to support the achievement of its promise.
I want to thank Poppendieck for her comment and I offer this reply:
1. I’m so glad you believe Ronnei’s election “represents a real turn at SNA” and that you feel she’s the person to “lead the organization out of the destructive role it has occupied in the last few years.” Your good opinion of her and your optimism about her plans carries great weight with me. I promise to keep an open mind about Ms. Ronnei and her team going forward.
2. I love the idea of swapping out “grace” or “wiggle room” for “flexibility,” a word which has become truly toxic in the school food reform community. But we do need to be clear about what SNA means to accomplish, regardless of the term it employs.
I have no problem with districts being given extra time to implement the IOM’s recommended whole grain standard if product supply is an issue in their area. And I’m on record as being OK with schools serving 100% white flour “regional favorites” as a treat, such as white flour biscuits once or twice a month. Yet what SNA has been calling “flexibility” is really a wholesale ditching of certain standards for all districts, across the board, permanently. In other words, grain foods are either going to remain whole-grain rich or they’re not. Kids will either continue to be served fruits and vegetables or they’ll be able to revert to the “all-beige tray” on a daily basis. That’s what’s at stake here, isn’t it?
3. You say “the call for more resources for equipment and a more realistic reimbursement rate are not excuses for non-compliance,” and I couldn’t agree more. I don’t think there’s a school food advocate out there who doesn’t believe districts are sorely underfunded and under-equipped, the very obstacles which make compliance with the nutritional standards harder. The big disappointment to me was that SNA didn’t put its full weight behind those requests, a move which would have united the entire “good food community,” as you call it, and which likely would have had the full support of our still-highly-popular First Lady as well. Instead SNA chose a path which divided us, squandered its good relations with White House and earned it a lot of bad press in the bargain.
4. Finally, you say “the larger good food community needs to stop demonizing SNA.” I agree the atmosphere has gotten a bit toxic lately and that’s never productive. But you do also acknowledge that SNA has “occupied a destructive role in the last few years.” So I hope you can understand that people like me, watching SNA from the outside, can only take our cues from the organization’s behavior. And SNA’s recent actions and statements have left a lot of people scratching their heads in dismay — including the First Lady, who seemed blindsided last year by SNA’s about-face on the HHFKA standards. We absolutely do need to give SNA’s new president a chance, but let’s remember that SNA itself created the current climate which has made it harder to do so.
At any rate, I’m really glad you came by The Lunch Tray to leave this comment, which has left me feeling more optimistic about SNA’s new leadership and its plans going forward. I look forward to continuing this conversation on The Lunch Tray with you, Ms. Ronnei or anyone else who wants to chime in.
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