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

April 1, 2015
Karen Perry Stillerman
Sr. Strategist and Sr. Analyst, Food & Environment Program

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.