An Update on (What Else?) the School Lunch Fight

by Bettina Elias Siegel on June 12, 2014

SNA logoYesterday, the School Nutrition Association (SNA) held a conference call to defend its support of a legislative amendment which would allow struggling school districts to opt out of healthier school meal standards.  Such waivers would be for only one year but the amendment, if passed, is widely seen as a first step in chipping away permanently at the nutritional advances of the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA).

The SNA call featured eight school food service directors who described how various HHFKA provisions have negatively impacted their programs.  Most of the complaints were by now familiar – namely, increased cost, reduced revenue and food waste, with “it’s not nutrition unless the child eats it” a frequent refrain.  But one or two speakers offered more novel arguments, such as increased stigma for children on free and reduced price lunch (when paying students leave the program) and attempting to draw a connection between California’s drought and wasted fruits and vegetables.

I didn’t doubt the sincerity of the speakers or the accuracy of the data they presented, but, like many school food advocates, I continue to be disappointed that SNA seeks a roll-back of healthier meal standards as the solution.  When asked by a reporter why SNA has not instead sought increased funding from Congress, SNA CEO Patti Montague offered the same response I received months ago from SNA spokesperson Diane Pratt-Heavner, i.e., that the SNA “was told”  that such a request was a nonstarter on Capitol Hill.

A few points in particular caught my attention during the call:

  • In defending the SNA’s desire to return to “offer versus serve,” i.e., the old system in which kids could choose (or not choose) to take fruits and vegetables at lunch, one school food director said “we trained them to make healthy choices [under OVS] but now we’re forcing them to take items they will not eat.”  Does anyone else see a disconnect there?  If the kids were enthusiastically taking fruits and vegetables under the old system, why is it a problem that those foods are now required meal components?
  • Two of the food service directors complained that new sodium requirements will keep schools from serving turkey or roasted chicken sandwiches on whole grain bread as “a la carte” items.  That does seem unreasonable, but I’d be interested to know what percentage of a la carte (snack bar) revenue nationwide is currently derived from the sale of healthful turkey sandwiches, versus relatively non-nutritive foods like chips and other salty snacks?  This sounds to me like the spurious “hard boiled egg” talking point all over again, but I’m open to receiving any data to the contrary.
  • SNA CEO Montague, in attempting to correct what she described as gross inaccuracies in the media, said it’s a “fallacy” that 60 to 70 percent of the SNA’s funding comes from food industry sponsorships.  Instead, the correct figure is . . . 50 percent.  Somehow that clarification didn’t reassure me that the food industry has no influence over SNA’s legislative agenda.
  • A reporter mentioned that many of the districts she’d spoken to in Minnesota were not having any particular difficulty meeting the healthier standards.  The SNA reply (and I’m sorry that my notes don’t reflect the particular speaker) was rather surprising: “If they’re not asking for relief, it’s because they don’t know what’s ahead of them.”  In other words, only an ignorant or incompetent school food service director could possibly oppose SNA’s agenda.  On behalf of the many districts around the country which are successfully meeting the current meal requirements and are fully prepared to meet the forthcoming ones, I found that statement insulting.
  • I asked CEO Montague for comment on the fact that 19 past SNA presidents have taken the rather extraordinary step of publicly breaking rank with the organization by urging Congress to reject the waiver amendment.  Montague’s reply was that “only the board speaks for the organization and they [the 19 past presidents] aren’t speaking to the members.” When I asked in a follow-up if she could explain the cause of this obvious rift in the organization, she simply said, “We don’t know,” followed by a long silence.

On that latter point, I’m due to speak today with one of the 19 past SNA presidents who signed the letter to Congress.  If he/she agrees to be interviewed on the record, I’ll certainly share our conversation here.

And now a few other items to keep you abreast of the school meal controversy:

Debate on Waiver Continues in the House

Yesterday marked the beginning of House debate on the waiver language, with Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA) seeking to strip the waiver from the House spending bill.  He was joined in the fight by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Rep. George Miller (D-CA), along with chef Tom Colicchio.  More here.  As of last night, no vote had been taken.

White House Threatens Veto

In a statement issued on Tuesday, White House threatened to veto the spending bill if it contains the school meal waiver, saying that such a bill would be “a major step backwards for the health of American children by undermining the effort to provide kids with more nutritious food.”

Senate Holds First Child Nutrition Reauthorization Hearing Today

The Senate Agriculture Committee will hold its first hearing today on the 2015 Child Nutrition Reauthorization, well ahead of schedule and no doubt in response to the roiling school food debate.  Details at Obama Foodorama.

fed upFed Up Producers Make a Special Delivery to Congress

To coincide with debate on the waiver, Laurie David and Stephanie Soechtig, co-producers of the new documentary film “Fed Up,” delivered red and blue M&M’s to the 29 House members who voted in favor of the waiver in committee last week.  In a statement, the producers said of these legislators:

They might be out on the town today enjoying a leafy salad, followed by a leisurely trip to the Congressional gym, but once they get back to their office they’ll have a reminder on their desk that the policies they support would give kids garbage to eat five days a weeks, 200 days a year.

More here.

[Ed Update: This post was updated on 6/12/14 at 10:15 CST to add mention of the Senate CNR hearing.]

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Heather June 12, 2014 at 10:07 am

On the last day of school I talk to the lunch ladies at my son’s title 1 school. They were terrified the waiver amendment would pass because they know the district would seek and likely get it. They worked so hard not only to get the kids to accept but to like the healthier food, including the offerings they expected for the upcoming standard roll outs. For many of the kids this truly is the only place they have consistant access to healthy food the cafeteria staff considers it their life’s mission to do everything to help these kids. They couldn’t hide their anger that the SNA would claim to be doing this on their behalf. (And don’t get them started on the SNA putting cafeterias before the kids they serve). Sadly district politics mean they can’t publicly speak out without putting some of their pilot programs in danger.

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Colin Purrington June 12, 2014 at 11:24 am

Regarding low sodium sandwiches, I know that I can get salt-free bread and turkey at my local supermarket (GIANT). There are certainly low-sodium versions, too. That schools claim the low-sodium rule prevents them from serving turkey sandwiches suggest they are disingenuous. Anyone in food service would know that such things are available. The issue is more whether kids will choose such items at high rates … since kids clearly prefer high-salt versions. It will take a few years to adjust to low salt, but as some European countries have shown, it can be done.

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Libby June 12, 2014 at 1:24 pm

Thank you for doing original reporting on an important issue that is getting such short shrift in the media!

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Beth Collins June 12, 2014 at 7:38 pm

Thanks for the reporting. It’s great.

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