by Marion Nestle
Feb 2 2015

Food Politics 101: The School Nutrition Association vs. Fruits & Vegetables

The School Nutrition Association (SNA) is the organization that ostensibly represents the interests of school food service personnel.

I say ostensibly because the SNA has moved in a quite different direction.  It now fully represents the interests of its corporate food industry donors.

In the recent past, it supported federal efforts to improve the nutritional quality of school meals.  Now it fights all efforts to do so.

Recent events illustrate these points.

1.  Nancy Huehnergarth reports on the SNA meeting in Phoenix:

The annual conference, which this year ran from January 11 through 13, is “where school nutrition directors and industry representatives [came] together to build successful partnerships to better serve the nation’s children,” according to the SNA’s website. But a review of the conference agenda, speakers, educational sessions and sponsors paint a far different picture — one of an overwhelmingly industry-driven event heavy on the promotion of food and beverage offerings from major processed food corporations.

2.  The SNA has just issued a Position Paper on school meals.

It calls for more funding for school meals (good idea).

But then it insists on some very bad ideas:

  • Stop requiring fruits and vegetables to be served with every meal.
  • Don’t require so much whole grain.
  • Back off on lower sodium.
  • Allow any junk food to be part of the reimbursable meal.
  • Allow any junk food to be sold in competition with school meals.

In other words, return to the junk food school environment that flourished before the Institute of Medicine wrote two reports on improving the nutritional quality of school meals, Michelle Obama instituted Let’s Move!, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 authorizing USDA to set nutritional standards, USDA wrote those standards, and most schools in the United States went right ahead and implemented them.

The ostensible reason for the pushback?  Prevent waste.

3.  The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) did an analysis of trends in student participation in school meals.

This  research firmly counters the idea that students are turning away from school meals in droves in order to avoid having to eat fruits and vegetables.  It cites the recession and the increased price of the lunches as the reasons for the decline in participation.

Writing in Politico, Helena Bottemiller Evich points to the politics:

Student rejection of fruits, vegetables and whole-grain products and declining participation has been a key part of the political debate over the push to relax some of the new standards. The move has sparked a battle that is expected to intensify this year as Congress looks to reauthorize the law governing school nutrition programs.

4.  Tom Stenzel, president and CEO of United Fresh Produce Association issued a response to SNA.

While we agree with many recommendations in the School Nutrition Association’s (SNA) 2015 Position Paper, we are deeply disappointed that SNA has chosen to continue its ill-advised fight against serving kids more fruits and vegetables in schools. The requirement that kids receive one-half cup of fruits or vegetables in school meals is being successfully met by tens of thousands of schools across the country. This is a modest step for the health of our children, especially in these critical learning years. When health classes teach students to make Half Their Plate consist of fruits and vegetables, it would be unconscionable for the school cafeteria to undercut that message by not serving at least one-half cup in school meals.

With friends like the SNA, school food advocates don’t need enemies.

Chalk this one up to food industry divide-and-conquer strategies.  Food companies pay SNA’s bills.  They get what they pay for.

The SNA ought to be the strongest advocate for healthier school meals.  It’s a tragedy that this organization has become the leading defender of junk food.

  • Dana Woldow

    The board of the School Nutrition Association who put forward this year’s ridiculous position paper should be ashamed of themselves. If they really need the money they currently get from Big Food to run their organization, why not just raise their membership dues a bit? That way they could continue to advocate for polices that would support the health and well-being of the children they have been hired to serve, not policies that line the pockets of junk food purveyors.

  • Observer

    Cornell researchers (Price and Just) just published a study suggesting that having recess before lunch (instead of after lunch) significantly reduced food waste and increased consumption of fruits and vegetables. There are other ways to reduce plate waste if that is supposedly the SNA’s concern. – Mandy Willig

  • Vee

    I can’t believe SNA recommends a junk food culture when the country’s childhood obesity is so high. I think ‘conflict of interest’ is one of the culprits here.From Wall street to SNA, we see this pattern repeatedly.

  • Vee

    I can’t believe SNA recommends a junk food culture when the country’s childhood obesity is so high. I think ‘conflict of interest’ is one of the culprits here.From Wall street to SNA, we see this pattern repeatedly

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  • nnmlly

    Wow – you could be forgiven for thinking that the US is run by people who hate children. Perhaps they should be consulting with mums to get ideas. We reduce food waste in our house by only offering healthy whole food, with no alternatives. Simple.

  • School_Nutrition_Association

    School Nutrition Association members support strong federal nutrition standards for school meals – including calorie and fat limits and requirements to offer a greater quantity and variety of fruits and vegetables. But some of USDA’s rules go so far that many students are now swapping healthy school meals for the very junk food you mention.

    According to USDA, 1.4 million fewer students choose school lunch each day since the new nutrition standards took effect. It wasn’t until the new rules took effect that total student lunch participation began to free fall, despite increasing student enrollment in participating schools.

    Meanwhile, the cost of meeting the rules is crippling many meal programs, threatening their financial viability and hampering efforts to make further menu improvements or offer more expensive, appealing produce choices like berries or kiwi. USDA says the new rules add $1.2 billion to the cost of preparing school meals in Fiscal Year 2015 alone. As a result, in a recent survey of SNA members, only half of school meal program operators anticipate their programs will break even at the end of this school year.

    SNA members are asking Congress to provide schools adequate funding and flexibility, allowing school nutrition professionals to plan creative, appealing menus that will entice students to eat healthy school meals. Read SNA’s requests at

    Diane Pratt-Heavner
    School Nutrition Association

  • Dana Woldow

    Diane – The FRAC study that Marion links to above showed the decrease in student participation (entirely among students paying full price for their lunch, since participation among those getting free lunch increased) correlated with a mandated increase in the price students must pay for their meal. Anyone who has spent a couple of years working on school food policy knows that the minute the price charged for lunch increases by even a dime, the number of kids buying lunch drops. And yet your response to that study continues to be – what – just to ignore it? If SNA put as much effort into asking Congress for a higher meal reimbursement rate as they do into opposing fruit veg & whole grains, maybe school nutrition departments could balance their budgets and still serve kids the healthiest possible food.

  • Dan

    This is outrageous. I am a SNA member and school food service manager and this article is full of bent truths and little fact. Do research of your own, before listening what the media tells you.

  • School_Nutrition_Association

    SNA wholeheartedly agrees that paid lunch equity requirements are also contributing the decline in student lunch participation, which is why we have advocated for easing those mandates since they were enacted. We cited this in our response to the FRAC study (posted on our website and included in the referenced Politico story). However, the FRAC study’s failure to acknowledge the role of the new nutrition standards in declining student lunch participation ignores countless media reports from across the country, SNA surveys of school meal program operators and even findings of the Government Accountability Office, which cites: “State and local officials reported that the changes to lunch content and nutrition requirements, as well as other factors, influenced student participation. For example, almost all states reported through GAO’s national survey that obtaining student acceptance of lunches that complied with the new requirements was challenging during school year 2012-2013, which likely affected participation in the program.”

    Diane Pratt-Heavner
    School Nutrition Association

  • Dana Woldow

    Really? Your “proof” that the problem is the higher nutrition standards, and not the increase in meal prices (as FRAC says) is your organization’s own survey? Backed up by “media reports” most often produced in response to the unending stream of press releases your own office has sent out over the past two years, which repeatedly make the claim that healthier food is driving kids away from the meal program? Are you willing to consider the possibility that neither of these sources is really objective?

  • Casey

    Parents want the SNA working to raise the standards for child nutrition, not helping junk food companies find ways to lower it. Very disappointing.

  • foodrevboulder

    Really? I can read a 1 page position paper. Make fruits and veggies voluntary to reduce waste. Reduce whole grains to reduce waste. Where in that are we talking about the nutrition needs of kids? Do we accept that kids need to eat more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains? Start addressing it as a nutrition problem, not a waste problem.

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  • SCHFood

    It makes better headlines to misrepresent the truth, however, what SNA and its members are asking for less perscriptive, research-based regulations to make meals healthier. Let’s look at some of Marion’s claims.

    Stop requiring fruits and vegetables to be served with every meal. – SNA is not asking for any changes to what is offered to students. They are asking for a change in what students are required to take. I am a member of SNA and personally wish this were not in the position paper, however, I understand why it is there. At the high school level, telling a student that they have to take any particular item makes them not want it. Is the fruit/vegetable more important than the milk or meat which are not required? The old rule was they had to take any 3 of 5 items offered. Now one of the 3 has to be a fruit/veg. Before it was required 99% of the time they were taking the fruit/veg. Now they don’t want it but when you put it on the tray they walk directly to the trash and throw it away so that you can see them just to make a point. It is a false assumption that putting it on the tray leads to consumption.

    Don’t require so much whole grain.- USDA now requires 100% of all grains to be whole grain rich. That is not what the dietary guidelines call for. It states 50% of grains should be whole-grain. SNA has asked to roll-back to the former requirement of 50% of grains to be whole-grain rich. Even if some non-whole grains were allowed that would solve issues with acceptability of some products that are just not good or available in whole grain versions.

    Back off on lower sodium. – SNA has not asked to change from the current lower sodium level. It is asking to not implement the future targets until there is research to support it. Doesn’t this seem like a reasonable request given that sodium is an essensial nutrient and too little can be dangerous?

    Allow any junk food to be part of the reimbursable meal. – This is a ridiculous statement that Marion knows is false. SNA is asking that any side dish included in the meal be allowed to be sold a la carte even if it does not meet the Smart Snack guidelines. Currently a second whole-grain roll that is 25 mg too high in sodium cannot be sold to a high school football player needing extra calories because it does not meet the Smart Snack criteria, That is absurb!

    Allow any junk food to be sold in competition with school meals.- Also completely false. This isn’t even addressed in the position paper. Here is a link to the position paper so you can really see what is included
    Julie Boettger, PhD, RD
    Director of Food and Nutrition Services
    School City of Hammond (IN)

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  • stclair859

    Just one comment to the above attempt to “clarify” the SNA’s position on the whole grain requirement: the definition of a “whole grain-rich” food is that it must contain 50% whole grains. That is exactly what the Dietary Guidelines recommended. I don’t know why SNA continues to confuse people with this issue, making it seem like it is a requirement for 100% whole grains. Is it the writer’s own misunderstanding or a desire to misinform?

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