Who’s Against Healthy School Lunches for Kids? (No Really, Who Is?)

March 4, 2015 | 4:42 pm
Karen Perry Stillerman
Deputy Director

Debates about child nutrition and the quality of taxpayer-subsidized school lunches are heating up in the nation’s capital. Last week, the Partnership for a Healthier America (the non-profit spin-off of the First Lady’s “Let’s Move” initiative) held its annual summit here. And this week, the School Nutrition Association, a trade group representing 55,000 school food service professionals, is holding a DC conference complete with “lunch ladies” lobbying members of Congress. Sounds great, right? And who would argue with healthy food for kids? Well, a closer look at both events reveals the junk food industry players lurking in the shadows.

What’s “Big Soda” doing at a childhood obesity summit anyway?

Big Soda at PHA

Big Soda brought its wares to the exhibit hall at the “Building a Healthier Future” summit on childhood obesity. Right…

Billed as the “one of the nation’s premiere gatherings of health experts, policy makers and business and industry leaders committed to ending childhood obesity,” last week’s Building a Healthier Future Summit featured a rousing plenary address from the First Lady Michelle Obama: “We can’t afford not to give our kid nutritious foods.” There was on-stage dancing and an appearance by 80s hip-hop artist DMC of Run DMC. A slick video announced a new celebrity-endorsed branding campaign to market fruits and vegetables to kids.

But the summit wasn’t all carrots and broccoli, as my colleagues quickly discovered while setting up the UCS booth in the exhibit hall. Across the way was the American Beverage Association—representing a long list of non-alcoholic beverage makers but dominated by Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, and Dr. Pepper—and its colorful display of everything Big Soda wants to sell you more of. Sure, there were some diet sodas and bottled water on offer, but there was also an awful lot of carbonated “liquid sugar,” for a summit on childhood obesity. And PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi was a featured plenary speaker at the summit, touting the snack food empire’s “healthier” options. Low-fat Doritos, anyone?

The (limited) power of school lunch

For our part, UCS was at last week’s summit to talk about the potential for school lunch programs to improve children’s diets and their futures. We distributed copies of our new report, Lessons From the Lunchroom, which found that participation in the federally subsidized National School Lunch Program encourages children to eat more fruits and vegetables—foods that keep children healthy. At the same time, as my colleague and the report’s lead author Lindsey Haynes-Maslow explained, healthy school meals alone are not enough to counteract other unhealthy dietary influences linked with obesity. (Like all that soda at the conference.)

The American Beverage Association’s website touts that sector’s success at removing sugary drinks from schools and replacing them with “lower-calorie, smaller-portion choices.” Yes, that voluntary initiative, which began in 2006, was a step in the right direction. But surely Big Soda was already seeing the writing on the wall. The federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA), enacted four years later, would take a bigger step toward improving the menu available to kids in schools, requiring that school meals (and, importantly, vending machine offerings) align with federal dietary guidelines. This ultimately brought fat, sodium, and total calories down while increasing fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. The HHFKA and the USDA school food rules that followed in 2012 were widely applauded by health advocates. And as our new report documents, they have already begun to achieve the goal of increasing children’s intake of fruits and vegetables at school.

But it’s not enough. Furthermore—and this is more worrisome—this progress is at risk.

School food rules: When “flexibility” = junk food exemptions

As I wrote last summer, the food industry and its Congressional allies would like to roll back key provisions of the law. Part of the industry’s strategy appears to be hiding behind the people on the front lines of school food service. The School Nutrition Association represents school food directors across the country and once supported the updated USDA standards. But the SNA is also disconcertingly cozy with junk food makers—for example, a PepsiCo executive sits on the Board of Directors of its charitable arm, the School Nutrition Foundation, which has as its mission “education, professional development, scholarships and research in school nutrition.” (Hmm.) And the association has been embroiled in controversy over its change of heart around implementation of the new rules.

Speaking at the SNA’s legislative action conference this week (where PepsiCo snacks were handed out at breaks), Senator John Hoeven (R-ND) announced that he will introduce legislation that would permanently roll back sodium and whole grain rules for school lunch. While his proposal would leave fruit and vegetable standards intact, rolling back part of the law is like pulling threads on a sweater—it threatens to unravel the whole law, and sets a bad precedent for special interest influence over school nutrition rules.

In his press release, Sen. Hoeven references a need to provide “greater flexibility to meet the nutritional needs of all students,” and specifically mentions the needs of “athletes or others whose dietary needs do not fit the guidelines.” That sounds reasonable, but is it really about being flexible? Or is it bowing to the big food and beverage companies—some of whom sponsor the SNA and its conferences—who hope to continue selling processed food to schools?

We know that millions of American schoolchildren are eating too much processed food and sugar and not enough fruits and vegetables every day. Shouldn’t we pay more attention to their nutritional needs?

What You Can Do: Tell Congress to preserve today’s healthy school lunches for all children and make them even better tomorrow. Click here to send your letter now!