The School Nutrition Association—Opposing Better Nutrition in Schools Since 2013

, senior analyst, Food and Environment | April 1, 2015, 10:56 am EDT
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It’s hard to believe, but it’s true. An organization representing tens of thousands of “lunch ladies” nationwide is leading the charge in Congress to roll back key healthy school lunch rules—including requirements for less sodium, more whole grains, and more fruits and vegetables on kids’ school lunch trays.

Over the last two years the School Nutrition Association (SNA) has abruptly switched sides on this issue, fired its lobbyist, and stuck its thumb in the eye of First Lady Michelle Obama, once an ally. It’s doing all this over the objections of many of its own members and former leaders, and in the face of evidence that the new rules are working. Oh, and SNA wants us to believe that corporate sponsorships and contributions from “Big Food” have nothing to do with it.

Over the years, I’ve seen a lot organizations and coalitions with misleading names that belie their true intent. For example, the Center for Consumer Freedom isn’t a consumer group at all, but a front group for the food and beverage industry. So what’s the story with SNA?

A healthy lunch flip-flop

Strangely, the organization was for healthy school lunches before they were against them. They helped push the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act through Congress in 2010, yet now they are leading the opposition to its key provisions as Congress gets ready to reauthorize the law for another five years. In an article last summer, Politico reporter Helena Bottemiller Evich wrote about SNA’s sudden and nearly complete about-face on USDA school lunch rules that took effect in 2012. Her story detailed the twists and turns that led SNA to back an effort by House Republicans to legislate a broad waiver from the school lunch rules. The saga, complete with the sacking of the association’s long-time lobbyist, was further detailed in a lengthy New York Times magazine article last fall.

So why the 180? SNA offers a variety of arguments, but it’s hard to overlook a steady stream of junk food industry money.

Who’s hiding inside the SNA?

Politico’s Evich reviewed public tax filings and found that food company sponsorships and contributions make up about half of SNA’s $10 million annual operating budget. Corporate sponsors include little-known players like Schwan Foods, which claims to supply 70 percent of the frozen pizzas sold and served in schools. The list also includes much more familiar junk food purveyors: PepsiCo (maker of Pepsi, Mountain Dew, and the Frito-Lay snack line, among other products), General Mills (whose cereal offerings include Lucky Charms—marshmallows for breakfast, yay!—and the surprisingly sugary Cheerios Protein line), and Domino’s Pizza.

A casual review of SNA’s website reveals that corporate influence takes a variety of shapes. For example, here’s PepsiCo ponying up to sponsor (at up to $4,999) SNA’s Legislative Action Conference just last month—in return getting the privilege of serving their Cheetos at conference breaks. Last July, PepsiCo, General Mills, and Domino’s all sponsored SNA’s large annual conference, kicking in $10,000-$24,999 apiece. (Blogger Dana Woldow breaks down the sponsorship opportunities in great detail here. And the Environmental Working Group illustrates the relative influence of various SNA sponsors here.)

Representatives from PepsiCo and Schwan Foods also sit on the Board of SNA’s so-called philanthropic sister organization, the School Nutrition Foundation, which provides educational grants to school food professionals. WalMart and Schwan are listed among top SNF donors.

SNA’s leadership has expressed dismay at charges of corporate influence, and has offered a variety of alternative explanations for their healthy lunch flip-flop. But these arguments just don’t hold up to scrutiny.

Healthy lunch standards are working

SNA claims that kids just don’t like the new healthier school lunches, and are throwing away more food as a result. My colleague Lindsey Haynes-Maslow recently took on that issue (here and here), and found that new studies suggest “plate waste” (how much food kids throw away) is not a bigger problem than it was before the updated standards took effect. Another study from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation suggests that students are accepting the new lunches. And according to this poll, parents also overwhelmingly support them.

SNA also says that the updated nutrition rules are just too onerous for its members to meet. But the USDA has reported that 90 percent of the nation’s schools have successfully implemented the standards. And a number of innovative school districts implemented them early and with great success. These include school districts in Norfolk, Virginia; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Riverside, California. Of course, that’s not to say that every school district is having success. Some are struggling, and though they’re relatively few, their difficulties are real. That’s why the USDA is offering additional technical assistance and mentoring.

SNA could also lobby hard for even more help. Federal school meal programs operate on the basis of per-meal subsidies, and higher reimbursement rate would make it a lot easier for all schools to meet the standards. But up until February, SNA wouldn’t even ask Congress for that. Now, their latest position paper does include a call for a 35-cent increase per meal, which UCS also supports. But some observers are skeptical about whether SNA will put its lobbying weight behind that request or simply continue to focus on weakening the nutrition standards.

SNA members revolt

All of this has led to what looks like an ugly civil war within SNA’s ranks. Last May, nineteen past SNA presidents broke with the current leadership, writing an open letter to Congress. More recently, two enterprising school lunch bloggers created another open letter for rank and file SNA members, which 86 members signed and sent to SNA’s board.

In a bizarre new twist, Politico’s Evich reported just this week that SNA had filed an ethics complaint seeking to have its long-time lobbyist (also a lawyer) disbarred. That story (behind a paywall) quotes former SNA President Jane Wynn in an email to friends:

“I am filled with deep emotion today,” Wynn wrote. “I find myself not believing what I know to be true. … Indeed, SNA was the leader in child nutrition, a position I do not believe we can claim today,” added Wynn, who used to oversee school meals in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for one of the largest school districts in the country. “I was, and continue to be, shocked that SNA would go further and attempt to have [the former lobbyist and his law partner] disbarred.”

If SNA is no longer a leader in child nutrition, who is looking out for kids?

With a coalition of allies, UCS is working to defend and improve the 2010 law to ensure that all kids get healthy food at school. We hope SNA’s leadership will come to its senses and join us.

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Support from UCS members make work like this possible. Will you join us? Help UCS advance independent science for a healthy environment and a safer world.

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  • Jobe

    Come on Michelle, smack em over the head with ethical cucumber and hibiskus-lemonade.. sure you can!

  • thinkingdeep

    The fruits and veggies served in my school cafeteria have a carbon footprint the size of T Rex. We’re in TN, and our “fresh” produce is shipped from CA. By the time these “healthy” food options reach us? the packaging smells moldy, the produce is sub-par- the students would eat it if it didn’t smell rotten. I collect the veggies and compost them, at least we’re trying to get something beneficial from the waste. Why in the world are we trying to feed food to kids that (a) was grown on the other side of the country (b) isn’t fresh if it’s been packaged in plastic and (c) why are we only serving carrots and broccoli raw? There are 9 cafeteria workers and none of the food they serve is made “from scratch”. I like institutional food, if it’s not just simply dumped from a can and warmed up. The entire system needs an overhaul, and lobbyists don’t give a darn about kids’ nutrition.

    • Bluebird

      Why not source local vegetables and fruits? Get farmers involved to supply the school?

      • thinkingdeep

        I love that idea! I have asked the same. I know we can’t grow some of the produce they send us, but carrots? Sure, we can grow carrots! I want our school system’s produce to be a cooperative effort between community/school gardens and student workers. I think we could save a ton of money too.

  • Concern for the future

    I can say that yes the lunches are being eaten and no the waste is not much more then before. I can say also that the kids that need to benefit from the program will not they simply do not eat at school, they starve and run to McDs or Whataburger as soon as the bell rings end of day. On a issue of choice they eat in school because it is the only choice the truly needy are not obese they are hungry it is when there is excess that the obesity comes into play, I agree that corporate chains do not belong in school but the scratch made foods of the past were not the problem, I recall looking forward to lunch as a kid not only for the social aspect but also for the food it was “really good”. I am saddened by the current rush to excess to cut all the “bad” out of a program that for some children is the only time they have a chance to eat.
    There is no easy quick fix, the issue needs to be countered as a culture not just by educators and lunchrooms. Take the matter head on and deal with the true issues, excess, poverty, the new “social (electronic)” and lack of family interaction. If you have a family take an honest look and ask the question ‘other then holidays …how often do you eat TOGETHER as a family unit? not with fast food, not instant microwaved convenience, but making and setting a table and spending the time together?
    In this day and age I bet that the vast majority is few and very very far between.

    • kstillerman

      Thanks, Concern For the Future. Interestingly, our February report, “Lessons From the Lunchroom,” found that low-income 5th and 8th graders participating in the free- and reduced-price lunch program actually WERE more likely than their peers to be obese, EVEN THOUGH they were also eating more fruits and vegetables than non-participating kids. Our conclusion was that healthy meals at school are a lifeline for those kids, and we should increase (not decrease) the fruits and veggies served there, but that even that’s not enough to overcome the other unhealthy influences in these kids’ lives…like the ones you mentioned. Nutrition education for parents and kids is important, as is affordable access to healthy food outside of school. See our report at

  • Prairie Wind

    What’s hiding inside the School Nutrition Association? NOT NUTRITION!

    My grandma was a ‘lunch lady’ in rural MN back in the day – and they made Everything From Scratch, Every Day. And made breakfast for the kids, too. The students LOVED my grandma’s school lunches!!! Who can say THAT with the garbage they serve nowadays?! I may have not always liked making lunches every morning while my kids were in elementary (their non-public schools didn’t offer school lunch), but at least they were eating Real Food.

    • kstillerman

      Hi Prairie Wind, and thanks for your comment. A lot has changed since
      the days when your grandma was scratch cooking at her school. Contracts
      with big processed food companies made heat-and-eat meals more
      attractive, and many schools no longer have adequate kitchens and
      equipment to prepare real food. SNA is right that some schools still
      require more help to be able to serve the healthy meals kids need.
      That’s why UCS is calling for an increase in the federal reimbursement
      rate and more USDA funding for facilities, equipment, and technical
      assistance. And because just handing kids healthy food doesn’t always
      mean they’ll eat it, we’re calling for more nutrition education and
      hands-on learning about food in schools to help bring the kids along.
      All that is needed WHILE we maintain and improve nutrition standards for
      school meals.