It’s Time to Protect School-Cafeteria Workers From Their Own Food Fight

Iris Quimbayo (L) and Alina Bernardini work the lunch line as they sell pizza to students at Everglades High School on November 18, 2011 in Miramar, Florida. Monday evening the United States Congress passed a spending bill with a provision that would allow schools to count pizza as a vegetable. 
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Jerry Hagstrom
June 1, 2014, 4:09 a.m.

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.


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