Excuses, Excuses: The School Nutrition Association’s Dumbest Reasons for Rolling Back Healthy School Lunch

, senior analyst, Food and Environment | July 9, 2015, 4:03 pm EST
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“The dog ate my homework.” It’s an overused excuse, and pretty transparent, but you can forgive children for inventing creative excuses for not doing their work. When grown-ups do the same, it’s harder to swallow. Such is the case of the School Nutrition Association—an organization purportedly run by adults, ostensibly to guarantee nutritious food for kids at school. Yet SNA is employing an impressively ridiculous list of reasons the nation’s schools should be allowed to keep serving unhealthy junk food.

The SNA gets an F for suggesting that reformulated junk food—like these Whole Grain Rice Krispies Treats—are an adequate substitute for healthy foods. (Screenshot from roundeyesupply.com.)

The SNA gets an F for suggesting that reformulated snacks—like these Whole Grain Rice Krispies Treats—are the right answer for improving school food. (Screenshot from roundeyesupply.com.)

I have written previously (here and here) about SNA. This weekend, the association will host its Annual National Conference (ANC) in Salt Lake City. This is SNA’s largest conference of the year, expected to draw more than 6,000 attendees from around the country. With a stated theme of “Explore-Discover-Inspire,” the ANC is supposed to be primarily about educating school nutrition professionals—the people who run and implement school lunch programs—about how to do their jobs better. But it’s hard to overlook the influence of the processed food industry on the conference, and on SNA and its members.

It has been heavily documented (summarized by me here, colorfully illustrated by UCS, and detailed more recently here) that processed food companies are major funders of SNA, including sponsoring their conferences. And let’s be clear: that industry’s purpose and goal is not to help school food professionals do their jobs better. Instead, its purpose is to SELL. MORE. PRODUCT.

Which is exactly what the industry will seek to do in Salt Lake City over the next several days. One commentator described last year’s ANC—in words and photos—as a veritable junk food smorgasbord, with pizza, Pop-Tarts, and whatever this is everywhere.

SNA’s silliest excuses

This is important, because, dismayingly, SNA has been a vocal advocate for reversing healthy school lunch standards, a position they’ve maintained as recently as last week. And over the past year or two, the association has publicly stated a wide variety of reasons for why Congress should roll back healthy school lunch standards.

In the next several days, my colleague Lindsey Haynes-Maslow and I will take on selected excuses and show why they’re wrong, or just plain silly. Here’s the first one.

Excuse #1: There’s a shortage of whole grain Rice Krispies Treats

In the December 2014 issue of their magazine, School Nutrition, SNA published an article (starting on page 36 here) detailing the unfortunate difficulty some schools were having getting their hands on sufficient quantities of reformulated junk foods like reduced-fat Doritos and, yes, whole grain Rice Krispies Treats.

Can you say, missing the point? Rather than substituting junk food with slightly better junk food, shouldn’t SNA be focused on helping schools truly transform the lunch tray?

But that’s not the approach SNA has chosen to take. Last month, the association’s incoming vice president Lynn Harvey asked at a Congressional hearing for changes to school lunch rules “that would enable us to provide foods that children like and will accept.”

Yes, kids like Rice Krispies Treats. But since when do we allow children to determine what they will or won’t “accept” on their plates? When I was a kid in school (admittedly, a long time ago), the grown-ups were in charge. Shouldn’t that be true in the cafeteria as well as the classroom?

Also, doesn’t Ms. Harvey understand how teaching children and changing their behavior works? Studies show that children’s eating habits must be shaped early on and with repeated exposure to healthy foods.

Do your homework, SNA

Just like teaching math, teaching kids to prefer (or at least “accept”) more nutritious food takes time and effort. But it’s worth it, and as UCS showed in a report earlier this year, school lunch is critical to helping children, especially the most vulnerable kids, eat a healthier diet. And the grown-ups at school should keep at it (as most of them, not incidentally, are doing successfully—more about that next week).

In the next few days, this blog will highlight and rebut selected other excuses we’ve heard from SNA and their members and allies, ranging from the high cost of fruit to the dangers of low sodium (yes, really). And we’ll be following (from afar) the proceedings in Salt Lake City. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, to SNA and its leaders and members heading to Salt Lake City this weekend, I say:

Do your homework. Do it right. And stop making excuses.

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