School Lunch Foes Favor Anecdotes Over Evidence

by on October 19, 2015

Media stories about school lunch usually appear in August, along with the Back to School ads, but this year those articles are still a regular occurrence, even as Halloween rapidly approaches. That’s probably because, although the federal legislation covering all child nutrition programs (including school meals) technically was supposed to have been finalized by September 30th, Congress has thus far taken no action.

Fortunately for kids, no action doesn’t mean an end to school meals; cafeterias will continue to operate under existing rules until a new bill passes. Recently, those rules have put more whole grains, fresh fruit and vegetables, and less salt, fat and calories, on students’ meal trays.

But what’s delaying the new legislation?

What has in the past been a bipartisan effort in Congress to do what is best for kids has this year turned into a highly politicized, often raucous debate, frequently based on anecdotes featuring fictional characters like “the starving student athlete” and “the school struggling to meet healthy meal rules.”

The reality is that school meals meeting new calorie limits have only about 25 fewer calories than previously (no one is “starving”), and by September 2015, the USDA reported that over 95% of schools were complying with the healthy meal rules (schools aren’t “struggling”).

In fact, finding a school that is “struggling” to serve food that meets the requirements of the 2010 Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act is so challenging that USDA Undersecretary for Food and Nutrition Kevin Concannon recently told Politico’s Morning Agriculture that members of Congress visiting their own home districts during the August recess, typically could not find one:

” ‘I feel a lot better now than I did a year ago,’ Concannon tells MA. For much of the past year, he was worried because industry forces and the School Nutrition Association had lined up against many elements of the standards, he says. But now he thinks the effort has lost some steam. ‘As the year has gone on, I think more and more people have seen around the country, and some of those members [of Congress] are now visiting schools are saying things like, “Yes, I had a good meal, but there must be other places that are struggling.” They weren’t finding places directly.’ ”

The School Nutrition Association (SNA), which is comprised both of those who run our nation’s cafeterias and those who manufacture the often highly-processed food served there, has put all of its lobbying muscle behind promoting the idea that the nutrition rules are unworkable. However, it seems like they are only “unworkable” for those who want to continue serving lots of refined grains, sugar and sodium, and fewer fresh fruits and vegetables. Like, for example, the processed food companies that provide half of SNA’ operating revenue.

Nonetheless, SNA’s complaints have been “warmly embraced by Republicans who are trying to undermine federal school lunch rules that they see as the cornerstone of a nanny-state agenda from the first couple,” reported the LA Times.

Last spring, SNA rallied many of their 55,000 members in Washington D.C. to participate in their “Charge to the Hill,” an event which assigns SNA members the job of serving as lobbyists for a day, meeting with their Congressional representative and sharing their anecdotes of how difficult their job has become now that they are no longer allowed to serve up daily pizza, french fries and commodity canned peaches and call it free lunch.

SNA even thoughtfully provided their members with SNA-approved talking points, SNA-approved infographics based on SNA’s own internally conducted survey, SNA-approved “studies” on sodium, and other resources to push SNA’s viewpoint as fact.

As I explained at the time:

“As those SNA members arrive on Capitol Hill, our elected officials need to keep in mind whose interests SNA represents.

“While it would be heartwarming to believe that SNA leaders have the welfare of children as their top priority, that’s not really the purpose of the organization, whose strategic goals don’t mention kids at all. SNA exists to support and speak for the adults who run school meal programs, as well as their school food industry members and sponsors who manufacture the food, but not the kids who eat the meals.”

SNA has repeatedly said that they don’t want to abandon existing nutritional rules, but only want “commonsense flexibility” to allow, for example, schools to serve what they call “regional favorites”, like 100% refined flour biscuits in the South, or “culturally relevant” dishes that feel familiar to immigrant students.

One of SNA President Jean Ronnei’s “regional favorite” anecdotes involves her desire to offer a dish that she says appeals to her St. Paul school district’s Karen (Burmese) population.

In response to my article about her championing healthy food as St. Paul Public Schools’ nutrition director, prior to her term as President of SNA, Ronnei wrote:

“SPPS needed to apply for a temporary whole grain waiver that would allow the district to create a menu item that would appeal to our diverse student body…At the urging of our Karen community, we sought the waiver to add culturally relevant dishes to our menus, such as a scratch-prepared breakfast entree made with white Jasmine rice and scrambled eggs. Schools nationwide should be able to make exceptions like these when planning menus, which is why SNA is seeking reasonable flexibility.”

Wondering how often Ronnei’s schools would be exercising their 2 year waiver so that breakfast could be “culturally relevant” to St Paul’s 5% of students who identify as Karen, I discovered an interesting thing regarding that scrambled eggs and jasmine rice breakfast entree. You know, the one that Ronnei felt was so essential to cultural relevance that she considered it proof that all schools needed to be able to routinely ignore nutritional regulations in the name of “reasonable flexibility?”

It’s not actually on the menu at any St Paul public school this October. It’s not on the November menu either.

Ronnei was so successful in spreading this idea that being allowed to serve white jasmine rice was essential for school nutrition programs that it was even mentioned in a recent error-riddled New York Times article on school lunch. But as Bettina Elis Siegel of The Lunch Tray pointed out in her letter published in the NYT rebutting the article, “Our children were not seeing a lot of…jasmine rice before school meal standards were overhauled.”

Apparently, even with a waiver and the need for cultural relevance intact, St Paul students aren’t seeing jasmine rice either. Makes a great anecdote, though.

It’s not just SNA’s insistence on the need for more refined grains that seems based only on anecdote. There’s also the SNA claim that students don’t want to eat the half cup of fresh fruits or vegetables that the new rules require them to take. However, the SNA leaders who make those claims often describe the situation as happening in “other” districts, not their own.

For example, Jane Adams of EdSource recently reported:

” ‘We’re looking for flexibility,’ said Dena England, president of the California School Nutrition Association, a nonprofit association of 2,000 members from school food service departments and additional food industry members.

“Despite pushing for optional servings of fruits and vegetables, England said getting students to eat produce at lunch has not been an issue in the San Marcos Unified School District, where she is executive director of Child Nutrition Services. ‘If you have some type of education program, children will tend to select fruits and vegetables and try them,’ she said. ‘In my district, we have a farmer’s market.’ ”

In other words, this California SNA leader is parroting the need for “flexibility” on fruit and vegetable requirements even though she, in her own district, has no trouble at all getting kids to take their fruit and veg.

But back to Congress.

As I write this, the Republican party is in disarray following news that Rep. Kevin McCarthy was withdrawing his candidacy for Speaker of the House. Rep. Paul Ryan has emerged as what some see as the best hope of a new Speaker, but he too has a history of relying on anecdote, not evidence, especially as relates to school meals.

As the Washington Post reported, in a speech given to the Conservative Political Action Conference in spring 2014, Ryan told a story about the school free lunch program and brown bag lunches from home in which he equated free school lunch with “an empty soul.” It turned out, on closer investigation, that the tale Ryan related, which supposedly proved his point about how free school lunches rob low income children of their “soul,” was actually based on an anecdote that had nothing to do with the school lunch program. Ryan later apologized, saying he misspoke.

But that’s what happens when people, whether SNA leaders or elected officials, rely on anecdotes to support their views, rather than evidence. There are plenty of anecdotes about healthy school meals being bandied about Washington these days, about how schools are “struggling” to meet the regulations and athletes are “starving” and how kids don’t want to eat healthy food.

Does anyone doubt that SNA leaders and their corporate food sponsors are behind those anecdotes, and the partisan battle that has stalled the passage of a new child nutrition bill in Congress?

Even former Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, who worked with SNA for 40 years as a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, told attendees (beginning at 1:15:12) at a child obesity conference in July 2015 that having been “captured” by their processed food industry sponsors, SNA was no longer a nutrition organization and has instead become a “mouthpiece for agribusiness.”

“We’ve got to bring them back,” Harkin said.

With more than half of US students now eligible for free or reduced price meals, the question Congress needs to be asking is this: Are the cuts to nutrition standards being called for by SNA really in the best interests of students, or are they just the easiest solution for the adults whose job it is to serve those students?

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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