Why Did the School Nutrition Association Betray Kids?

School Lunch

Childhood obesity is being addressed in various ways. One of them is small improvements in school lunch provided for free to over 30 million children everyday. This is through a USDA programs for disadvantaged children. The federal government funds these programs and also defines the nutrition criteria, but it is up to the school districts to actually procure, prepare, and serve the food.

When the National School Lunch program began in 1946, it was a win-win-win. USDA helped farmers with surplus commodities offload the fruit of their labor instead of letting it rot. School districts hired cafeteria workers (“lunch ladies”) who would cook and serve the food. Poor kids got at least one hot meal a day.

The government pays school districts about $3 for each meal served to an eligible child. Therefore, there is an incentive to increase the average daily participation (ADP) of students in the meal program.

Today, most of the school lunches are prepared far away from school. The corporations that make them use all the techniques and ingredients of the processed food industry. To make the food appealing to kids (thus increasing the ADP), these companies jack up the sugar and salt content, add unhealthy additives, and produce the lowest common denominator foods such as pizzas and hot dogs.

To make sure kids still get a nutritious meal, the USDA, with blessing from the White House,  upped nutrition standards for school meals in the Healthy, Hunger-Free kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA). This has infuriated corporations, because HHFKA implementation has lowered their profit margins (healthier food requires more expensive ingredients). Additionally, during the transition period to healthier lunches, there has been a slight drop in average daily participation.

The School Nutrition Association (SNA) is not-for-profit organization representing 55,000 school cafeteria workers and administrators. It’s mission is advancing the quality of school meal programs through education and advocacy. For most of its existence, the organization has looked out for the interests of children. When improved nutrition standards for school lunches were announced a few years ago, the SNA applauded.

Today, however, the SNA is opposing the HHFKA and is lobbying Congress to delay its implementation. What could be the reason for SNA’s change of mind?

One possible reason is the growing influence of “industry members” on SNA. These are the same companies whose profit margins stand to hurt as nutrition standards improve. Indeed, Coca Cola and Pizza Hut are sponsors of the SNA, along with tens of other food companies.

We asked chef Ann Cooper, an activist involved in school lunches in Colorado, for her opinion on the SNA’s about-face:

“I believe that it is our inherent responsibility to assure that all kids get healthy/delicious/nutritious food in school.  For me that means that we all must work to support and enhance the USDA’s HHFKA. The SNA’s decision to try and “roll-back” the guidelines flies in the face of that kind of support.  As the “voice” of school food service professionals all over the country, their decision to reverse their support of the HHFKA is nothing short of deciding that money is more important than the health of our children.

Instead of requesting a “roll-back” of the guidelines, I suggest that they request support from Congress and the USDA for student and staff education so that we can see an increase in average daily participation as we see an increase in the education and awareness of healthy/delicious school food for all of our children.”

Cooper’s recommendation makes sense; after all, the SNA’s mission is “advancing the quality of school meal programs through education and advocacy”.

  • H2O

    And the less lunch ladies that accutually cook the less they have to pay a school employee. I guess the government, HHFKA, USDA, & big companies don’t see their children in those lunch lines. It’s sad that instead of helping child obesity, diabetes, ADHD, ADD & I’m sure there’s more I’m out of the loop. They are poisoning our children and making those diseases spread like wildfire. How heartbreaking.

  • Audrey

    Pack a lunch for your kids! No iffiness there.

    • Stardust

      I agree, but some families can’t afford to, which is why their kids get school lunch for free.

      • Audrey

        Our district has paid lunches, so it costs money either way.

      • AdoptiveMum2Seven

        Many families who “can’t afford to” provide lunch for their children, so their children get free lunch, are already getting food stamps. They would have to buy less junk food for mom n dad to provide healthy lunches for their children… do you really expect that to happen?

        My adopted children’s birth mom got food stamps but was too lazy to provide food for the children, at school or in the house. The money was there for the food, though…

        • Female68

          Not everyone is on food stamps. Your personal situation should and does not represent the the majority of the parents who want better food choices for their children. You sound a little bitter.

  • Beth Rosen

    I disagree with “healthier food requires more expensive ingredients.” There are plenty of ways to make good food that is less expensive than a flash frozen chicken nugget or pressed meat shaped into ribs. I agree with the fact that the students and the cafeteria staff need to be educated in order to empower them to make good choices and cook good food, respectively.

  • http://www.amber-hinds.com Amber @ Au Coeur

    I have mixed feelings about school lunches. My husband is a chef who, just last year, made the transition out of restaurant life and into contract food service for the sake of our family life. After running several large and upscale restaurants, he now is responsible for planning and overseeing the execution of meals in a school district. Having him in this position has given me a lot of insight into school lunches and how it works.

    Before he took the job we had a lot of discussions about whether or not it would clash with his (and our) food values. Obviously, I know that he cares about real food in a way that other district managers may not, but his school district does NOT buy prepackaged or premade meals. Most of his ingredients are pre-prepped (washed and cut already), but the food (including things like pizza) is all made onsite by his employees. He has made a ton of changes since starting mid way through the year, including: transitioning the staff away from canned vegetables and to fresh or frozen; putting a stop to ridiculous practices like stirring jello mix into applesauce to color it; not ordering snacks/foods with artificial colors; and participating in a federal grant program which allows him to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables to be used for teaching in the classrooms. He is working to make change in his district, although that change is slow considering the rural area where he works and the fact that many children may not have been previously exposed to the foods he is offering/is working toward offering. For example, removing chocolate milk is something that will take a long time, but at least he is offering bottled water as an alternative.

    I see all the work my husband does and I have a lot more respect for the people who are responsible for feeding kids in schools. There are people who care about quality and who are doing their best to provide meals to children that they would eat themselves. BUT, I also see the bureaucracy he has to put up with and the constant pressure to decrease costs, which can often mean having to purchase sub-standard products, especially from a food politics and ethics perspective. Nutritionally, I believe that school lunches probably do just fine, but if you are family like ours who wants produce grown in the United States, preferably organically, and meat and dairy products that are not from a factory farm, there is good reason not to eat school lunches. Ethical, organic, grown-by-our-neighbors food just isn’t possible when the per student budget for each meal is $1.35, which is why my husband runs a school lunch program and yet we would never have our children eat school lunch.


  • H2O

    Th national school lunch program NSLP signed by Harry Truman in 1946.
    Is in more than100,000 public and non profit private schools and it provides more than 31 million lunches for children each school day. That’s a lot of lunches .. The scary thing, it’s also in private schools

  • T.J.

    We could learn a lesson from the French national school lunch program. Healthy, fresh, and varied! Food prepared in the school, not in a factory.