School Nutrition Association – the new Stepford ?

by on July 28, 2015

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Has Big Food spirited off a longtime champion of healthy school meals, and replaced her with a “Stepford Wives” robot who happily parrots the agribusiness party line as President of the School Nutrition Association?

My recent profile of new SNA President Jean Ronnei described a woman who was once a tireless supporter of children’s health through better nutrition at school. As longtime food service director for St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS), Ronnei’s program was lauded nationwide as an example for other districts to emulate.

That all changed in 2014, when Ronnei became Vice President of SNA. Suddenly the woman who brought whole grains, lower sodium, and unlimited fresh fruits and vegetables to the students in her care, began spouting the SNA party line that new healthy food regulations for school meals need to be gutted because a tiny fraction of schools were having trouble meeting them.

Meanwhile, critics charge that it is really SNA’s Big Food sponsors who are behind the organization’s efforts to lobby Congress for weaker nutrition standards.

I was thrilled to receive a quick response to my article from Ms Ronnei herself. Here is the text of her letter (in italics), interspersed with my own comments:

In response to Dana Woldow’s “Will SNA Chart a New Course,” I am grateful for Ms. Woldow’s confidence in my ability to effectively lead the School Nutrition Association (SNA) as President. I am honored to serve SNA’s 55,000 members, who work hard to prepare healthy meals that meet regulations, appeal to diverse student communities, are affordable for families and fit within increasingly tight school meal program budgets.

I, too, have only the greatest respect for those among SNA’s 55,000 members who actually are school meal program workers; it is a difficult job with low pay and little thanks, so hats off to our nation’s school nutrition staff!

However, I have far less enthusiasm for SNA’s members from the processed food industry, or their Patrons, who are granted benefits designed to help processed food companies get their chicken nuggets and pizza onto children’s school lunch trays, or the members of SNA’s Industry Advisory Board (including Pepsi, ConAgra, and Sara Lee Foods).

While representing only a minority of your membership, the industry members provide half of SNA’s operating budget annually. They underwrite the cost of SNA’s conferences with their sponsorships, and are clearly driving much of the SNA agenda, including opposition to sodium limits, and to requirements for more fruit, vegetables, and whole grain rich products in school meals.

Saint Paul Public Schools’ (SPPS) Nutrition Services team, like so many others nationwide, has dedicated their careers to improving school menus and encouraging students to make healthier choices. Thanks to our central kitchen, equipped with the help of federal funds no longer available to schools, we slowly and carefully increased the amount of whole grains into our school-baked products that were then not available in the market place.  

And a terrific job you did, Ms Ronnei! That’s why my article lavished praise on your district, long a leader in healthier meals for schoolchildren. You are correct that the federal government does not provide enough equipment funding for schools lacking cooking kitchens to be able to upgrade to scratch cooking (an issue that has plagued my own San Francisco school district for decades).

The USDA needs to make more – much more! – money available to schools to cover the cost of cooking equipment, as it did prior to Reagan-era cuts.

However, in regard to your district “slowly and carefully” introducing whole grains into your menus, it is admirable that you did that, but all school districts had the option to do exactly what you did. The current requirement that all grains served must be “whole grain rich” (defined as containing 51% whole grains) was under discussion for several years before becoming part of the HHFKA in 2010.

School nutrition departments have known since the USDA’s 2008’s Healthier US Schools Challenge that “whole grain rich” was coming. Some, like yours, recognized that it is easier for children to accept gradual changes, and began sourcing and introducing whole grain rich products early on. Others dug in their heels and refused to do so, apparently believing that if they just plugged up their ears and chanted “La la la I can’t hear you,” the new rules would magically go away.

It is those schools that are now experiencing trouble trying to implement the new regulations. But with 95% of school districts already in compliance, why should the rules be changed to accommodate the small number that dragged their heels? As your SPPS experience proves, kids just need time to come around. Why not just wait it out while the few remaining districts that were late adopters bring their kids around?

If those schools are still having trouble sourcing whole grain rich products, why not work to open up the supply chain so that all districts have access to the same kinds of healthy, tasty grains that your district has?

SPPS needed to apply for a temporary whole grain waiver that would allow the district to create a menu item that would appeal to our diverse student body. As Ms. Woldow cited, our district is renowned for efforts to offer dishes that our diverse student body recognizes from home. At the urging of our Karen community, we sought the waiver to add culturally relevant dishes to our menus, such as a scratch-prepared breakfast entree made with white Jasmine rice and scrambled eggs. Schools nationwide should be able to make exceptions like these when planning menus, which is why SNA is seeking reasonable flexibility.

This “We need to be able to serve culturally appropriate dishes” line is trotted out repeatedly by SNA leaders, who claim that students in the South demand all-white-flour biscuits, while those in the Southeast reject anything but white flour tortillas, and in the Northeast, they must have white flour bagels. The need to serve these items is always presented as “exceptions” that schools should be allowed to offer “on occasion.”

But SNA is not lobbying to change the 100% whole grain rich requirement to something that would allow the “occasional” white flour biscuit. They are demanding a rollback that would require only 50% of the grains served be whole grain rich.

If SNA really were seeking to allow schools to serve something like white biscuits a few days a month (“on occasion”), that could be accomplished by requesting a rule requiring 90% of grains to be whole grain rich (instead of the current 100% rule.) That would let schools serve biscuits every other week, which seems more than enough.

Even Julia Bauscher, who was SNA President last year, told (at 1:32:34) a July 2014 Senate Agriculture Committee Hearing, just after the 100% whole grain rich rule took effect, that she believed “most districts wouldn’t have any trouble getting even to 90%, if there was at least an exemption for that culturally significant bread grain item,” meaning biscuits, tortillas, etc.

Ms. Bauscher, whose own district had already achieved the 100% whole grain rich standard, apparently felt that a 90% standard would be easily achievable for everyone else – so why is SNA still fighting for a rollback to 50%?

And despite SNA’s claims, there are schools in the South serving whole grain rich biscuits kids love.

SPPS has always encouraged students to take “All You Care to Eat” from our colorful fruit and vegetable “Choice Bars,” but we struggle with the new mandate forcing every child to take a fruit or vegetable at breakfast and every day, even if they don’t want to eat it. This mandate has frustrated students and staff, spoiling what should be a healthy choice that leads to student consumption. Meanwhile, forcing students to take food they don’t eat has increased costs, forcing us to limit the varieties of fruits and vegetables we once served.  As a result of rising costs, we have been unable to set aside funds to replace old equipment for the past few years.

What a change of tone from the woman who just two years ago insisted that kids “like green beans – I’ve seen it myself,” and who advocated for changing kids’ tastes by repeated exposure to healthier foods! Now you are saying that kids are “frustrated” because the new rules have “spoiled” their choice to walk right past the fruit and vegetables without taking any? It doesn’t count as “exposure” if the produce never makes it onto the lunch tray.

As to those increased costs, there are many factors driving rising food costs – drought, Avian flu, and labor shortages among them – and yet in SNA’s view, it is always due to “forcing students to take food they don’t eat.” That claim is belied by a recent study from the Rudd Center showing that under the new meal rules, kids are eating more fruit and throwing away less of their lunch than previously.

Kids would probably eat even more of their lunch if they had time to do so. Has SNA ever considered that the time the average student gets to eat their lunch is only about 15 minutes, and sometimes less? As Oakland (CA) food service director and SNA member Jennifer LeBarre says, “It’s going to take longer to eat a salad than it will to eat french fries.” And yet asking for a minimum mandatory “time to eat” regulation has never been part of SNA’s Policy Papers.

Thanks to the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), SPPS is now serving all students in some schools for free. CEP helped our district and others regain some of the student customers we lost under the new rules. Unfortunately, too many schools are ineligible for this program.

Wait – I thought you just said that being forced to take an unwanted fruit or vegetable “frustrates” children and is “spoiling” your meal program. But since offering every child free meals in some schools (regardless of family income), the number of kids choosing to eat in the cafeteria is actually rising?

It sounds like the real problem was that the HHFKA-mandated paid price increases for cafeteria meals drove away some kids, whose families earn too much to qualify for government-paid meals, but still not enough to be able to pay $2.15-2.50 for their children’s lunch every day. Now that those kids can get a free meal at school, they are coming back.

Sounds like students are not rejecting the food, or being “frustrated” at all, when the meal is free.

So really, the cause of the decline in cafeteria patrons (which is now reversing) isn’t the fruit or veg or whole grain rules. It is that more and more parents are having trouble scraping up lunch money for their kids.

As SNA President, I am called to serve school nutrition professionals from every background, including those who do not enjoy many of the advantages that helped SPPS get ahead of the curve in meeting new requirements. For SPPS, and for theirs, I will continue to support SNA’s requests for increased funding and flexibility under the new standards.

School food advocates have long agreed that schools need higher funding to help them afford the new healthier meals, which naturally come at a higher cost. Fresh fruit and whole grains cost more than fruit juice and Wonder Bread. I have been calling for higher funding for school meals since 2008, long before that “ask” became part of SNA’s official position in 2015.

But last spring, SNA members walked into Congressional offices with the catchy talking point “Flexibility is free,” and that became your organization’s mantra. In other words, SNA put no muscle behind their higher funding request, and instead gave lawmakers the freebie option of just weakening school meal standards – what you call “flexibility.”

Asking for “flexibility” ignores the fact that 95% of districts are successfully meeting the current requirements. Instead, you are prioritizing the 5% who aren’t there yet, and to accommodate them, demanding rules that would allow every child, in every school, to be served less healthy school meals every single day.

Those meals would no doubt include plenty of the pizza and corn dogs that your organization’s sponsors sell, though, so I can’t help but feel that it is those interests this “flexibility” would serve.

At a July 2015 child obesity conference, former Senator Tom Harkin, who worked with SNA for 40 years as a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, told the audience (beginning at 1:15:12) that having been “captured” by their processed food industry sponsors, SNA was no longer a nutrition organization and has instead become a “mouthpiece for agribusiness.”

“We’ve got to bring them back.” Harkin said.

But how to do that?

In the climax of the made for TV sequel “Revenge of the Stepford Wives,” one brave woman disguises herself as a Stepford robot, and gaining the cooperation of another Stepford victim, she undermines the drug therapy used to keep the robots compliant, causing them to turn on their master.

Maybe, Ms Ronnei, you are that brave woman, who sees all that is wrong with SNA’s current direction, and is temporarily spouting the party line while working behind the scenes to free the organization from the grip of agribusiness.

Maybe with the help of dissatisfied SNA members who feel betrayed by their organization, like the 19 former SNA Presidents who in 2014 broke away from SNA’s position and urged Congress to reject calls for waivers or rollbacks of the healthy meal regulations, you can bring about positive change and, as Senator Harkin urged, “bring them back in.”

Aren’t you at least willing to try?

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 archive.

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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.

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