Late yesterday, I received an email from a school nutrition director who chastised me for being divisive and unfair in recent posts regarding the battle over school food nutrition standards. I went to bed with her email on my mind and wound up getting out of bed at 4am to write my reply.
Both of our emails are reprinted in full below. The two letters together make for a lengthy blog post, I know, but I hope you find the exchange worth reading. And, of course, I’d love your thoughts, too. Feel free to leave a comment below.
I am the School Nutrition Director at a small school and a RDN. I initially subscribed to your blog because I think you are passionate about feeding children nutritious food and because you are a thoughtful, intelligent and gifted writer who is on a noble mission.
As a parent and nutrition professional I appreciate and agree with your perspective on the state of children’s nutrition. I also agree with you that school lunch programs (and schools in general) should support healthy eating.
That being said, your recent columns have become divisive in tone and misrepresent both SNA’s motivation and requests in its 2015 position paper. The links to other articles on the subject are even worse as in Marion Nestle’s recent article in which she summarizes SNA’s position paper: “Stop requiring fruits and vegetables to be served with every meal. Don’t require so much whole grain. Back off on lower sodium. Allow any junk food to be part of the reimbursable meal. Allow any junk food to be sold in competition with school meals.”
Do you really believe this is what SNA is saying in their position paper? I think not.
SNA is simply the messenger requesting a reality check and tweaks of well-intended guidelines with some unintended consequences. While many districts have talented and smart FSD’s and receptive school communities and have successfully implemented the new guidelines, other lunch programs have managers with much less expertise. Many programs do not have dream kitchens and culinary staff for in house food preparation and rely on so called “big food” for items that meet the strict guidelines.
Yet this is still portrayed negatively by you as “processed” and “junk food,” both relative and subjective terms. Why do you have so much animosity for the food industry? I am sure you can agree that “big food” is also our economical source for many foods that are NOT “processed” or “junk food.” It’s naive to think anyone can operate a lunch program without the big food companies which are consistently demonized in your blog and links. Implying that FSD’s [food service directors] can be “bought” with a nice tote at a food show is just plain insulting to all of us who carefully select and purchase food for our menus. Many school FSD’s use a variety of vendors in order to provide an overall nutritious menu that budgets will allow.
Let’s agree that we are all on the same team in our goals for school lunches and that many schools need additional resources: funding for meals, equipment, training, and nutrition education. Perhaps most importantly schools need time for “buy in” from their school communities (parents AND students and school administrators) for the new NSLP [National School Lunch Program] direction.
All of this takes time. I think if you were sitting in the seats of many of these managers who truly care about feeding kids you would be more empathetic to how difficult these standards, along with the paperwork, are for many in the school lunch “business.” The NSLP guidelines can be the eventual and ultimate goal for all schools but it takes time. Every day there are fabulous successes in the lunchroom. This however seems to go unnoticed by you and others in your camp.
We also need to remember schools alone cannot change the food climate we live in and magically turn every child into a foodie. Our entire culture needs to get on board for the nutritional health of our kids.
I am as passionate about school nutrition as you are. A spoonful of support for those of us in the trenches and the SNA and less negative and divisive rhetoric would go a long way in getting folks on board with your message.
And here is my reply.
Thank you for taking the time to write and for the kind words about me and my work.
I have to say, your email brought me up short. So much so that I went to bed thinking about it, woke up at 4am still thinking about it, and finally gave up trying to sleep altogether and came downstairs before sunrise to write this reply.
One of my proudest accomplishments in connection with The Lunch Tray is the fact that school food professionals like you read the blog and feel comfortable leaving comments there. I like to think that’s because The Lunch Tray has never has been a place to unthinkingly bash school food — or the dedicated men and women who serve it. So when you pointed out to me, rightly, that my own tone on the blog has lately grown more divisive, you certainly gave me a lot to think about.
Let me address a few of your points up front and then I’ll get to the crux of my reply.
First, unlike some food advocates, I certainly don’t condemn all “processed food.” You probably haven’t been reading The Lunch Tray since 2011, when I wrote this post, but I’ve given a lot of thought to this question, trying to figure out where we should draw the line between helpful food processing versus processing that’s so destructive it leads to a society that’s at once obese and malnourished.
I’ve certainly never suggested on The Lunch Tray that school districts ought to avoid all processed food, which I agree would be impossible in light of current reimbursement rates and the sad state of most school kitchens. But, that said, here’s what “processed food” looks like in my district — and in most districts around the country. These are actual ingredient labels I pulled this morning from our current reimbursable and a la carte menus. So, just to be clear, when I speak negatively about “Big Food” in my posts, I’m referring to these sorts of hyper-processed, additive-laden, vitamin-fortified foods, which I simply don’t believe are served in the best interest of our kids.
I also agree that it’s unfair to assume that any individual FSD can be “bought” with a Big Food tote bag at a trade show (nor do I believe I’ve ever implied this on The Lunch Tray?) But when an organization like the SNA takes at least one-half of its operating budget from the giants of the processed food industry, we’re not talking about a little trade show swag. In that circumstance, it’s only natural — and necessary — to ask whether the organization’s legislative agenda is being shaped, at least to some degree, by its donors’ own goals.
But now I want to turn to the heart of my response to you, by linking to a post I wrote this past May. The title of the post, “School Food Professionals Versus Kids: How Did It Come to This?,” actually sounds a lot like the subject line of your email to me, “Can’t We All Get Along?”
I wonder if you ever read that post? Because if you had, you’d know that: (a) I only have the highest respect for you and other FSDs around the country, who I said “have one of the hardest jobs on the planet;” (b) I agree that schools alone cannot change kids’ dietary habits, and that many societal forces are working against your best efforts; and (c) SNA’s current legislative agenda actually makes perfect sense when viewed entirely from an operational perspective. Here’s a quote from that post, in which I asked my readers to take just a minute to stand in the shoes of an FSD:
Just think about it: if you were trying to balance a very tight budget in an operation which lives or dies based on how well students accept your food, and if many (sometimes, the vast majority) of those students came from homes in which nutritionally balanced, home cooked meals are far from the norm, and if the food industry was bombarding those kids with almost $2 billion a year in advertising promoting junk food and fast food, and if you had no money of your own for nutrition education to even begin to counter those messages, and if some of those kids also had the option of going off campus to a 7-11 or grabbing a donut and chips from a PTA fundraising table set up down the hall, wouldn’t you, too, be at least a tiny bit tempted to ramp up the white flour pasta, pizza and fries and ditch the tasteless, low-sodium green beans?
I think you can see from that quote how sympathetic I am to the challenges you and other FSDs face. And if the SNA had focused solely on helping FSDs overcome those problems with the very things you suggest in your email — “funding for meals, equipment, training, and nutrition education” — I would be the organization’s most enthusiastic champion right now.
But when you say that we just need “more time” to implement healthier school meals, I feel you’re obscuring what the SNA is really asking for. The organization is asking Congress to permanently weaken hard-won nutritional improvements to school food (improvements the SNA once supported) and if that happens, I just don’t see Congress reverting back to the current, more rigorous standards any time soon. So SNA’s agenda, if implemented, means 31 million children will be eating food that’s significantly less healthful than our nation’s leading scientists recommend, and for a very long time to come. That result would directly and adversely children’s health and, as I wrote in the post cited above, “if I’m forced to choose a side, then I have no choice but to side with the kids.”
So now, unfortunately, the battle lines have been drawn. And in the heat of battle, there’s no question that people – myself included — become more polarized.
But your email to me was a good wake up call. You’ve reminded me that:
- I haven’t emphasized enough here that, despite previous statements indicating it would not do so, the SNA has asked Congress for an increase in meal reimbursement. That’s a request I wholeheartedly endorse and I need to do more to express that support, both on the blog and during the eventual Child Nutrition Reauthorization in Congress.
- Some of the blog posts to which I’ve linked in recent days haven’t always used the language I’d choose to make certain points, and I need to be more careful in delineating where I agree or disagree with the authors I cite.
- While I’m always aware of the distinction between the SNA leadership, with whom I strongly disagree, and its rank-and-file members, whom I strongly support, maybe I’m not doing a good enough job of expressing that distinction to my readers — especially to new readers who may not have read posts like “School Food Professionals Versus Kids: How Did It Come to This?” This is something I’ll be more mindful of going forward.
Let me end by thanking you again for taking the time to write and for taking me to task in such a polite and civil tone, which — I can assure you — isn’t always the case with people who disagree with me! And if you’d like to continue this dialogue, I’d be glad to discuss these issues with you further.
Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 10,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page, join 5,500 TLT followers on Twitter, or get your “Lunch” delivered right to your email inbox by subscribing to my posts. You can download my FREE 40-page guide to “Getting Junk Food Out of Your Child’s Classroom” and be sure to check out my free rhyming video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!“