As Congressional hearings on the Child Nutrition Reauthorization got underway on April 15th, the School Nutrition Association (SNA) showed their true colors. As predicted, SNA wasted no time in tossing their request for higher school meal funding under the bus, instead harping on their belief that schools should be allowed to serve crappy food because that’s what students want.
The 55,000 member organization, which represents both school nutrition workers and the companies that manufacture school food, has been widely criticized this year for demanding cuts to recently imposed school meal standards that brought more fruits, vegetable and whole grains to student lunch trays.
Although a request for an additional 35 cents per school meal was part of the 2015 SNA Position Paper, the gutting of school nutrition standards was the primary “ask” in SNA President Julia Bauscher’s testimony before the US House Education and Workforce Committee.
Why would a school nutrition organization call for gutting nutrition standards? SNA has been quick to point out that some school nutrition programs are struggling to make ends meet. The higher nutrition standards set by the 2010 Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act (HHFKA) come at an increased cost; healthy whole foods costs more than processed crap.
Also driving some program deficits are HHFKA requirements that schools raise their paid lunch price. The increased cost of paying for school lunch resulted in some families deciding to pack a brown bag lunch instead. When fewer kids eat school meals, revenue decreases, but labor costs often remain the same, meaning some schools can’t balance their cafeteria budget.
SNA has repeatedly stated that too many cafeterias are running in the red, and it is true that the school meal program is underfunded. Wouldn’t you think that, given an opportunity to address Congress face to face (as one of only 4 witnesses testifying on April 15th), SNA President Bauscher would have wanted to emphasize the need for more money to pay for the mandated healthier food?
No such luck. In fact, Ms Bauscher placed such a low priority on the need for more funding that, when asked directly if more money would help, her rambling answer sounded like she was trying to run out the clock, rather than make a strong case for getting much needed dollars to support better nutrition.
Referring to Bauscher’s earlier testimony that students liked kiwi, but it was expensive, Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-WI) asked “Do you feel that if you had more money…we could have more kids eat the food?”
This is the golden opportunity that advocates of all stripes dream of – to be asked, by those who are in a position to grant the request, if your cause needs more money. This kind of opportunity rarely happens in real life, but when it does, it should be met with a clear, enthusiastic and unequivocal “YES! More money, please.”
Did SNA’s President, on behalf of school food service professionals across the country, seize this golden opportunity?
“Kids like what they like and kiwi is among the things they really like, and more money would help me provide that, but…and potentially help them consume that, if it includes something they like. So I think that we need to stay focused on teaching kids the importance of consuming healthy foods, we need to continue to make them available in the cafeteria.
“But again, if I lose, or my program reserves continue to decline, and the program operates in the red, I have to hold out my hand to my administration and ask them to cover my deficit, and that is occurring in more and more districts around the country. So we all recognize the critical importance of these programs is assuring that kids are prepared to learn and in moving the needle on student achievement. We want to make sure that all of our students are prepared for success throughout their lives so these programs are critical. When a school goes in the red and a school potentially goes off the program, we’re not able to provide the support we need.”
Talk about a missed opportunity! When given the chance to advocate for SNA’s own Position Paper request for an increased government payment of 35 cents per meal, Bauscher did not even mention that request. She didn’t mention that much of the HHFKA nutritional requirements came as an unfunded mandate to schools, since a meager 6 cents per meal in extra government payment was included, but the cost estimate for complying with the rules was far higher.
As this report from Ohio State University says, “Given the price of fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains, it is estimated the HHFKA will costs schools a total of $3.2 billion over the course of five years in order to successfully implement. However, in order to help cover these costs, the federal government raised reimbursement rates by six cents. The Congressional Budget Office estimated about $1.5 billion in additional revenue over 5 years will be generated from this increase. However, this is still not enough to cover the projected $3.2 billion of costs to cover the cost of complete HHFKA implementation.”
Instead of promoting the idea that school cafeterias need more money to pay for these more expensive healthy food mandates, Bauscher instead chose to advocate for “flexibility,” which is a shorter way of saying “Let us serve cheaper, less nutritious food.”
Regarding the mandate that students must take a serving of fruit or vegetable with their lunch, Bauscher said, “Under the current guidelines, it is difficult with the reimbursement we receive, to meet the students’ needs given the requirements, for example, that we make them take a fruit or vegetable. If that goes in the trash, then we are throwing resources away that could be used to improve the program in other areas…or to provide nutrition education which teaches them the importance of eating healthier choices.”
In other words, kids won’t eat fruits and vegetables, so let’s let them skip that stuff. Then we can use the money we save to tell them that fruits and vegetables are good for them.
When asked by Committee chair Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, whether there were any school nutrition directors looking to serve unhealthy meals, Bauscher was quick to respond, “Absolutely not.”
But does letting kids skip fruit and vegetables (while telling them those foods are healthy) really produce as nutritious a school meal as one which actually contains fruit and vegetables? Absolutely not.
It was the same story with whole grains. Citing SNA’s favorite term, “flexibility,” Bauscher argued for reducing the amount of nutritious “whole grain rich” (meaning at least 51% whole grain) food in school meals.
She testified, “Beginning July 1st of this year, 100% of the breads and grains that we serve have to be whole grain rich. Most districts were exceeding the [previous] requirement that at least 50% of the grains be whole grain rich.
“But across the country, in regions, there are particular items – where I live in the south it’s biscuits, in the deeper south it’s biscuits and grits, in the northeast it’s that NY style bagel, and in the southwest it’s tortillas – where many school food authorities struggle to find a product available in their area that is acceptable to their students. That is the flexibility we need in order to plan and serve meals that are appealing to all our students, keep them in the cafeteria.”
In other words, some students don’t like whole grains, so we want “flexibility” to go back to serving more refined grains even though they are less nutritious.
School food advocates, myself included, have speculated that SNA’s real agenda is to ease the rules for their corporate sponsors, whose processed foods like pizza and frozen potatoes have not fared well under the more restrictive HHFKA mandates. I spoke with my colleague, national food policy activist Nancy Huehnergarth after the hearing ended and she had this to say:
“Something smells funny when the leader of the SNA doesn’t jump at the suggestion of increased federal funding for school meals. The SNA has requested an additional 35 cents per meal in its 2015 position paper, for heaven’s sake! Is the SNA worried that publicly asking for more money will somehow backfire? Or is their real agenda simply to gut the school nutrition standards — which could help the SNA’s Big Food sponsors get their unhealthy products back into schools on a daily basis?”
Intriguing questions – and ones which will likely be asked by more observers as the Child Nutrition Reauthorization hearings continue.
Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at PEACHSF.org. Follow her on Twitter @nestwife, or read more than 140 characters of her writing in her complete archiveSoda Tax/Food Politics