How Lunch Ladies Get Schooled by Big Food

by on July 7, 2015


Ever wonder what school lunch ladies do in the summer when school is out? This week, many of them will be heading to Ski City USA (more commonly known as Salt Lake City), but they aren’t going there to ski.

On July 10th, more than 6000 members of the School Nutrition Association (SNA) will begin gathering in Salt Lake City for the organization’s Annual National Conference (ANC). How to comply with new stricter nutrition regulations, which began taking effect for government-paid school meals in 2012 and extended to a la carte snacks this past school year, is a topic that will be much discussed at the gathering.

With Congress working on the reauthorization of all child nutrition programs, including school meals, this year, SNA has come out strongly in favor of gutting those nutrition regulations. The organization leadership wants to allow more refined grains and sodium, and fewer fruits and vegetables, in school meals, and objects to Smart Snacks in Schools rules that have limited sales of snacks and junk food.

Some have accused SNA of being little more than a front group for processed food manufacturers.

Even recently retired Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, a strong leader for child nutrition during his 30 years on the Senate Agriculture Committee, and creator the school fruit and vegetable pilot program, reportedly told attendees at a child obesity conference on July 1st that “SNA is misnamed. They are no longer a nutrition association. We need to bring them back” and that the organization has become a mouthpiece for Big Food.

Unfortunately, nothing about the ANC is likely to disrupt the “disconcertingly cozy” relationship that critics have pointed out exists between SNA and processed food companies. Attendees will be welcomed at the ANC opening general session by pro football Hall of Famer (and pitchman for Coca Cola, Pepsi, Kraft, and Campbell’s Soup) Howie Long.

They will attend riveting educational sessions with titles like “White, Chocolate or Yogurt at Breakfast?” (what child needs chocolate milk at breakfast?) and “Child Nutrition Policy, Grassroots Advocacy and You!”, which promises to teach attendees how to move SNA’s positions (like less whole grains, more sodium, and perhaps chocolate milk at breakfast) forward with legislators.

They will graze through enormous quantities of processed food-like samples hawked in the exhibition hall by nearly 400 companies eager to sell their wares to the nation’s school cafeterias.

ConAgra Breakfast Boat, anyone?

According to the SNA promotional brochure, the conference offers “rich content” and “expert insights,” and all for the low, low price of about $300 for the typical school lunch lady/SNA member, thanks to generous underwriting by those companies courting the multi-billion dollar school cafeteria market.

The SNA sponsorship brochure lists over $300,00 worth of sponsorship opportunities for the ANC. As the brochure says, “Sponsorship opportunities are available at many price points so you can find the best fit for your marketing budget.”

Just $3,300 buys the chance to provide one item to be included in every official conference tote bag, where attendees might find an Otis Spunkmeyer Delicious Essentials cookie (“Healthy products don’t have to taste bad”).

For those seeking a larger presence, sponsorship of the 4 tracks of the conference’s education sessions (“This is your chance to align your company with topics of interest to child nutrition professionals”) runs $15,000 per track. According to the sponsorship brochure, that buys a company “the opportunity to have a representative at each session within the key area to serve as session presiders,” as well as a chance to display their signage.

Interestingly, SNA spokesperson Diane Pratt-Heavner told me in an e-mail that there were no takers for this sponsorship opportunity at this conference, but that “had the tracks been sponsored, the sponsor would have no role or influence in selecting or scheduling any education sessions,” because those decisions are made by SNA’s Education and Nutrition Committees and the ANC Co-Chairs.

Sounds like companies found $15K too much to spend just to introduce a speaker and put up their company logo, if they weren’t going to be allowed any input into what was presented at the sessions.

For the biggest bang, three lucky companies can each pay $25,000 to sponsor one of the general sessions (“Introduce the speaker…provide one collateral piece to be distributed as attendees enter the room… Your company name and logo strategically built into the entrance signage at the hall and displayed on large screens as attendees enter and exit the session.”)

So who are those generous sponsors?

Jennie-O Turkey spent over $25,000 on SNA’s ANC this year, while Domino’s Pizza, General Mills, the National Dairy Council (chocolate milk at breakfast!), Pepsi, Schwan’s, Tyson and Uncle Ben’s each forked over between $10,000-$24,999 to get their names out in front of the school food service folks.

Two dozen other processed food companies spent smaller amounts, and keep in mind all of these “sponsorship opportunities” are expenses in addition to what the companies pay to set up booths in the exhibition hall and send their own staff to the 4 day conference (plus the two additional pre-conference days.)

To be fair, there are plenty of worthwhile-sounding educational sessions at the ANC (“Experiential Nutrition Education: Promoting Healthy Habits”), and speakers like Dayle Hayes MS, RD,  a tireless advocate for healthy school meals, whose excellent article “10 Ways School Lunch Haters Can Support #RealSchoolFood” appeared in Beyond Chron in April.

So it’s not all just shilling for Big Food companies, and no doubt school food professionals can tell the difference between marketing and true education.

It’s just that the food and beverage industry spends billions annually on marketing (with the typical company spending about $4 million on marketing alone in 2013) for one reason and one reason only – because it works – and no one is immune to its effects.

Consider the “Catch the Moment” conference souvenir, for example.

According to the sponsorship brochure, when attendees “line up to receive this free personalized souvenir of ANC: a customized interactive digital photograph to remind them of their exciting visit to Salt Lake City and the generous sponsors who helped make the conference possible,” what they are getting is a photo of themselves with “a selection of fun backgrounds to choose from, including the front cover of School Nutrition magazine” that “will print out onsite with a customized frame featuring your company’s name and logo.”

In other words, for $12,000 (or 3 co-sponsorships for $4,500 each) a company can ensure that every lunch lady or nutrition director willing to wait in line will take home a souvenir photo of themselves bearing that company’s name and logo, which will presumably keep the company’s name right in front of the lunch lady or nutrition director for as long as that photo sits on their desk or office wall.

You know, like when they are deciding what food to serve the kids.

Does anyone really believe that having a processed food company’s name and logo right in front of a school food professional’s eyes every day is worth a penny less than $12,000?

As the SNA conference gets underway this Friday July 10th, and continuing through next week, Beyond Chron will be bringing you commentary on the proceedings from the Union of Concerned Scientists. Check it out – it’s bound to be enlightening.


Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at Follow her on Twitter @nestwife, or read more than 140 characters of her writing in her complete archive.


Dana Woldow

Dana Woldow advocates for policies, including soda taxes and better school meals, to improve the health of all children through better nutrition and education. She has been a leader in improving school food in San Francisco since 2002, when she formed a school nutrition group to run a pilot removing junk food from SFUSD's Aptos Middle School, where her children were students; the pilot was expanded to all of the city's public middle and high schools in 2003. She served as co-chair of the SFUSD Student Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee from October 2003 to June 2011.

More Posts

Tags: , ,

Filed under: Soda Tax/Food Politics