School Nutrition Assn Defies Common Sense

by on February 17, 2015

The School Nutrition Association says their mission is “advancing the quality of school meal programs through education and advocacy”, but some of their recent advocacy efforts defy common sense. How can an organization dedicated to advancing the quality of school meals possibly justify calling for serving kids crappier food?

The answer is simple – just rebrand the crappier food option as “commonsense flexibility” and claim that the “overwhelming majority” of SNA members struggle to meet new healthy school meal requirements. This has been the relentless drumbeat of the SNA since healthier food in school meals became mandatory in 2012, as part of the 2010 Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act.

Now, as Congress gets ready to begin the process to reauthorize child nutrition programs, as happens every 5 years, SNA is doubling down on their insistence that the vast majority of their members need the so-called “commonsense flexibility” to disregard regulations that put more fruit, vegetables, and whole grains, and less sodium and processed crap, on the lunch trays of 30 million mostly low-income students a day.

More than one third of American children are overweight or obese, putting them at risk for cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and other health risks. In what universe does serving kids already prone to diet-related ailments more pizza, french fries, and Pop Tarts equate to “common sense”?

And exactly how many of SNA’s 55,000 members are actually wailing that they must be allowed to continue serving children the kind of food that contributes to poor health?

Recent press releases from SNA have cited an internal survey of the organization’s members as “proof” that school meal programs are struggling to meet the new regulations, claiming that half of SNA’s members expect their expenses to exceed revenue this school year. This 50% rate is lower than the 65% who reported that their programs would lose money in 2010, a full two years before the new healthy food regulations took effect, although SNA never mentions that.

Still, if 50% of 55,000 members are claiming the healthy meal regs will force their program to lose money this school year, that must mean that tens of thousands of SNA members are voicing that concern, right?

So how many actual responses made up the claimed 50% of members, and are all of these folks actually running district school meal programs, or are some of them representatives of food companies, or other categories of SNA membership? To find out, I e-mailed Diane Pratt-Heavner, Director of Media Relations for SNA.

Here’s what I learned. The survey was sent by e-mail to just over 25,000 SNA members, which already is less than 50% of the total 55,000 members of the organization.

According to Prett-Heavner, the 25,074 folks chosen to receive the survey were all the “program operators” for whom SNA had e-mail addresses. She told me that “program operators” includes school district nutrition directors, cafeteria managers and employees. So, everyone surveyed is actually working for a school district meal program, not someone trying to sell a product to school district meal programs. That’s good.

However, there is no limit to the number of people from within any given school district meal program who can become SNA members. Membership categories include cooks, bakers, bookkeepers, technicians, managers, head cooks, assistant managers, and assistants, in addition to student nutrition directors.

Keep in mind that there are only about 14,000 individual school districts in the US.

Since the 25,074 members who received the survey exceeds the number of school districts in the entire country by over 10,000, clearly not all of the survey recipients are “directors” of school district meal programs. Some recipients were cafeteria managers or lunch ladies for a single school, responsible only for that one school, not an entire district.

These caf workers may (or may not) be aware of the finances of their own school, but rarely would they be privy to the financial details of the entire district operation. A lone school may operate at a loss, even though the district as a whole is breaking even, or vice versa.

In other words, only district nutrition directors are really in a position to speak authoritatively about whether their district meal program is expected to run in the red, or run in the black.

So how many district nutrition directors are complaining that new healthy meal regs are driving their program into red ink?

The survey generated just 1160 total responses, and Pratt-Heavner shared with me that only 67% of responses came from district directors; the rest came from cafeteria managers or other employees.

That means that 67% of 1160 responses, or 777 responses, came from individuals who are in charge of their school district’s meal program, and in a position to speak on behalf of that program. Of those 777, just half, or 389 individuals, indicated that they expected their district meal program to run in the red.

Not tens of thousands. Not even one thousand.

Fewer than 400 district nutrition directors, representing less than 2% of the 25,074 members surveyed, or less than 1% of the total 55,000 membership of SNA, said they expect to operate their meal program in the red this school year.

With just a 4% total response rate to the survey (1160 total responses from the 25,074 who received the survey), it seems that SNA drew the wrong conclusion.

The real news is not that the “overwhelming majority” of SNA members surveyed have trouble running their meal program in the black. The real news is that the overwhelming majority (96%) of those surveyed didn’t feel that SNA’s questions were important enough to warrant a response at all.

Of course, not everyone responds to a survey, even a short easy one from their own professional organization, intended to yield responses that can be used to lobby Congress for relief from supposedly burdensome regulations. Still, e-mail surveys of this type generally have about a 40% response rate, according to experts.

The School Nutrition Association likes to call itself “the authority on school nutrition,” but maybe the organization doesn’t really speak for school meal directors after all. Even as SNA continues to babble on about “commonsense flexibility” and imply that tens of thousands of school meal programs are losing money, another voice is being heard.

That voice is saying, “Hey Congress – don’t back down! We run school meal programs and we support the new healthy meal regulations!”

On February 12th, Bettina Elias Siegel reported on her blog, The Lunch Tray, that a letter signed by “86 courageous school food directors” had just been sent to the SNA board and leadership by Miguel Villarreal, director of food and nutrition services for the Novato Unified School District in Novato, California, and Allyson Mrachek, nutrition supervisor at Fayetteville Public Schools in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

The letter said, in part:

“We are deeply concerned that the reputation of our organization and its members are being damaged by the ongoing requests to weaken or waive school nutrition standards. While we agree that some aspects of the updates to the standards are challenging, we favor targeted and constructive solutions that do not involve Congress waiving school meal or snack standards.”

The letter follows a previous letter sent last May by 19 past president of SNA, taking issue with their organization’s call for waivers of healthy food rules, and urging Congress to stay the course on nutritious school meals, and not cave to pressure to weaken regulations or reverse past progress.

Finally, a new letter allowing additional SNA members to sign on has been created for those who did not have a chance to sign the first one. According to Siegel, that letter will be open for signatures until the child nutrition reauthorization by Congress gets into full swing later this year.

As the number of its own members speaking out against SNA continues to rise, will the organization regain its common sense and abandon calls for a “flexibility” that is nothing more than carte blanche to feed crappy food to kids? Or will they continue to fall back on their math-challenged claim that the opinions of 389 individuals represent an “overwhelming majority” of 55,000 members?

Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at Follow her on Twitter @nestwife, or read more than 140 characters of her writing in her complete archive.

Dana Woldow

Dana Woldow advocates for policies, including soda taxes and better school meals, to improve the health of all children through better nutrition and education. She has been a leader in improving school food in San Francisco since 2002, when she formed a school nutrition group to run a pilot removing junk food from SFUSD's Aptos Middle School, where her children were students; the pilot was expanded to all of the city's public middle and high schools in 2003. She served as co-chair of the SFUSD Student Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee from October 2003 to June 2011.

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