Who is really behind the assault on school food nutrition regulations?

When I was a coalition leader advocating for a New York state bill that would mandate healthier school food nutrition standards, I came up against the powerful New York chapter of the School Nutrition Association (SNA).

The SNA, which represents school food workers across the nation, has always been heavily funded and influenced by the very food industry giants who stand to lose money when healthier school nutrition standards are enacted.  In 2007, when a typical child’s lunch tray might have contained a sugary drink, nachos, an Otis Spunkmeyer cookie the size of a child’s head and a bag of chips, I could never reconcile the image of our kindly local school lunch ladies with SNA’s virulent opposition to serving children healthier school food.  Surely these people had children too!

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The New York chapter of the SNA meant business. Spending boatloads of money on professional lobbying and a massive postcard campaign to legislators, the organization and their deep-pocketed friends like PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Con Agra and Schwan’s, killed the state school nutrition bill, ensuring many more years of junk food for New York’s schoolchildren.

Fast forward to this past Tuesday, when Republicans on the U.S. House Agricultural Committee approved a spending bill with language that would gut the 2010 federal school food nutrition rules. Leading the charge to roll back the regulations was none other than the SNA, whose constituents are now dishing out the fruits, vegetables and whole grains required by law in school lunchrooms across the nation.  

Tuesday’s development was actually a change of heart for the SNA. In 2010, the organization’s newly evolved position, under pressure, was to support the federal Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act (HHFKA), which was signed into law that December. That set into motion the healthy changes our nation’s schools have seen to date, including standards for calories, fat, trans fat and sodium.  So why has the SNA suddenly reversed course -- just when the USDA reports that over 90 percent of the nation’s schools now meet the updated nutrition standards for school lunch, helping millions of students get healthier meals in this era of chronic disease and rampant childhood obesity?

The answer is “follow the money.” As of July 1, when the next phase of HHFKA’s more stringent school nutrition standards will be implemented, SNA’s influential Big Food and Beverage patrons will no longer be able to sell or serve many of their ultra-processed junk food products in the nation’s schools. By reaching out to sympathetic House Republicans, industry hopes to delay the next phase and create waivers for current regulations -- regulations that the Harvard School of Public Health found to have increased fruit and vegetable consumption among children.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t reasonable concerns from some school districts -- particularly ones, which have been unable to successfully implement the new standards. Not every district’s food service team is adept at budgeting or preparing palatable dishes from real food.  Some schools may lack necessary equipment needed to store, prepare or serve healthier fare.

These types of problems can be solved. However, instead of offering struggling school districts more resources like needed equipment, training and technical assistance, Congressional Republicans, prodded by the SNA and their cronies in the food and drink industry, decided to offer them a waiver.  The Lunchtray’s Bettina Elias Siegel points out that exempted school districts would be able to ignore the requirement that kids have to take a fruit or vegetable with their meal and more stringent rules on whole grains and sodium levels. They’ll also be able to resume selling a la carte junk foods daily.

Regarding concerns that some kids are rejecting healthy choices, leading to plate waste and lower school lunchroom profits, I have a message for both the SNA and House Republicans. This generation was raised on a steady diet of fried, sugary, unhealthy processed foods, thanks in good part to Congress’ disastrous policy of subsidizing corn and soy rather than fruits and vegetables. Now you want to go back to serving junk because (shock of all shocks!) some kids are having trouble transitioning to healthier fare?  We got ourselves into this mess of poor nutritional habits, rampant obesity and declining health over the past five decades. Surely, all of us can remain patient and supportive as we slowly train our junk-food-loving kids to enjoy real food.

Why won’t SNA leaders and House Republicans stand up for our children’s health instead of trying to dismantle nutrition standards that are improving their lives? The groups that stand to benefit the most if Congress backtracks on school nutrition standards are the food and beverage industries. And that’s exactly what they’re counting on, with a little help from their friends in the SNA and Congress.

Huehnergarth is a national food policy activist, journalist, coalition leader and president of Nancy F. Huehnergarth Consulting. Follow her on Twitter.