It takes a lot of work to damage or even come close to ruining the image of the people who make lunch and breakfast in schools throughout the United States. But their own organization, the School Nutrition Association, is taking a good stab at it.
SNA championed better nutrition for children for 67 years and supported the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, which called on the Agriculture Department to require schools to provide healthier meals in exchange for an increase in federal spending on school lunches.
This year, SNA has called on Congress to make the Agriculture Department grant waivers from the new rules for any school that says its school-meals program has been losing money for six months, and it asked USDA to roll back some of the regulations. The grounds: The new foods are expensive, and some children don't like them.
House Republicans jumped at the chance to side with this "industry" request. The House Appropriations Committee approved the waiver request on a party-line vote. SNA's problem is that almost everyone else is against them, including first lady Michelle Obama, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the American Medical Association, the national Parent Teachers Association, and retired military officers, who are worried that too many young Americans are too obese to serve their country.
To make SNA's situation worse, 19 former presidents of the association have come out against SNA'S position on the rules. And several current members met last week with the first lady, who is fighting obesity through her Let's Move program, to publicize that they back the new rules and have found ways to get kids to eat the healthier food.
With so much opposition, it seems unlikely the House measure will ever become law. The Senate Appropriations Committee has passed only a minor measure holding salt reductions to their current level and keeping the proportion of whole-grain items at 50 percent.
But the situation has longtime observers of the nutrition scene shaking their heads and wondering what has happened to SNA. It turns out the cafeteria folks—or at least some of their bosses—have gotten caught up in the deep cultural and political battles the country is going through.
SNA's predecessor organization, the American School Food Service Association, was born in 1946, the same year Congress created the national school-lunch program in reaction to military records that showed that many young people were ineligible for service during World War II because they had not had proper nutrition growing up. The organization initially gave a voice and training to the first generation of school-lunch workers, who were called upon to introduce meals in every part of the country, including the remotest areas.
Over the years, the association campaigned for free and reduced-price lunches for lower-income children and for better nutrition. By the 2000s, the program had grown to serve more than 32 million children, and breakfast and supper were added in areas where most of the children were low-income. The school food-service directors changed the name to the School Nutrition Association to emphasize their mission to provide the best food possible to the nation's children.
Farmers and agribusiness always played a role in the growth of the school-lunch program, because it was often used to absorb surplus food products, from ham to cranberries. For generations, kids complained about school lunches, including "mystery meat." As the American people got fatter and even obese, nutritionists began to see school meals as a way to provide more nutritious food to children and to teach them to eat healthier meals.
When President Obama was elected in 2008—just as more Americans were becoming "foodies" and paying more attention to what they were eating—nutritionists saw their chance to use the 2010 reauthorization of child-nutrition programs to write a bill that would require schools to reduce salt, sugar and fat in the school meals and to serve low-fat dairy and meat products, whole-grain bread and pasta, and fruit and vegetables at every meal.
That 2010 bill passed the Senate with bipartisan support. But by the time it came up in the House during the lame-duck session, most of the votes for it came from Democrats. Republicans already knew they would soon take over the majority, and the perception that the Obama administration was imposing a "nanny state" was already gaining popularity.
It turns out there was already a split within SNA. When the school-lunch program started, most schools cooked their own food. As the number of children participating in the school-lunch program grew, the need to provide more food led the schools to buy prepackaged, processed food, which led to the companies making those foods becoming big players within SNA. Under the new rules, those companies have to come up with tasty products with less salt, sugar, and fat and use whole grains. At the same time, the fruit and vegetable requirements—which bring more business to the United Fresh Produce Association—threaten to take up more of the school-lunch budget.
It also appears that SNA had developed regional splits, with Southern and rural school food-service directors less supportive of the new foods than those on the coasts.
The first sign that SNA was changing came last year, when the organization declined to renew the contract of Marshall Matz, an attorney who had advised the organization for decades. Matz's roots stretched back to the old Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, and he cochaired the private-sector agriculture campaign for Obama in 2008.
Then came the open campaign to roll back the new rules.
The final signal came when SNA decided to disassociate itself from the Global Child Nutrition Foundation, which SNA had founded to encourage school feeding programs in low-income countries. SNA blamed the recession, but the move further showed that SNA seems to be moving against the times rather than with them. GCNF has found new supporters. Two weeks ago, the foundation honored U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Rajiv Shah for his role in reducing world hunger. At the same time, Gene White, a former head of the California school-lunch program and SNA president, said in an interview that she had signed the former SNA presidents' letter defending the healthier school meals because she couldn't possibly urge developing countries to enact nutrition standards if the United States pulls back on its own.
The battles over nutrition will continue. When Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., asked House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., during the markup whether the majority intended to change the nutrition standards permanently, Aderholt said, "Not in this bill."
A few hours later, SNA put out a press release praising the appropriators but calling on the Agriculture Department to go further by not implementing any additional reductions in salt, not requiring 100 percent whole-wheat items, getting rid of the requirement for fruit and vegetable servings at every meal, and allowing any food item permitted to be served as part of a reimbursable meal to be sold at any time in vending machines. It appears clear that SNA hopes to use the 2015 reauthorization of child-nutrition programs to try to roll back the rules permanently.
The advocates for healthier eating aren't backing down, however. United Fresh has taken a pavilion at SNA's meeting in Boston this summer. United Fresh President and CEO Tom Stenzel said in an interview that he believes part of the problem with the new rules is that school food-service directors need help in buying fruits and vegetables efficiently.
Helen Phillips, a Norfolk, Va., school food-service director, was president of SNA when the 2010 bill was passed. She attended the White House event last week and said she considers the current splits within the organization a tragedy that she fears could undermine support for school meals in the future.
SNA needs to work out its internal problems. School-cafeteria employees—who work for low wages, often only three hours per day, to feed the nation's children—deserve no less.
This article appears in the June 2, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.