School Nutrition Association dismisses new studies that find kids like healthier food

While it’s hard to imagine that the increasingly tone-deaf leadership of the School Nutrition Association (SNA) could do any more to damage its organization’s reputation, it seems they have found a way.

The SNA, which is pressing Congress to roll back healthy school nutrition standards mandated by the 2010 Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act, is now publicly refuting two peer-reviewed studies that found widespread acceptance of the healthier school lunches.

{mosads}One study was published in Childhood Obesity and the second was published by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan. These are the first nationwide studies to examine students’ reaction to the healthier meals and they were deeply encouraging. The findings also reflect the hard work of many devoted SNA school food professionals who toil tirelessly in school kitchens around the nation.

A research brief, from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation-funded Bridging the Gap, summarizes the data from both studies, gleaned from reports from administrators at U.S. elementary, middle and high schools. The findings include:  

  • 70 percent of elementary school students generally like the healthier school lunches that rolled out in fall 2012.
  • 70 percent of middle school students and 63 percent of high school students also like the meals.
  • Across all grade levels, students complained initially about the new healthier food in fall 2012, but far fewer students were complaining by spring 2013.

So what was the SNA leadership’s response to these positive findings that students actually like healthier school meals – and even more so as time goes by? Rather than take a bow for the many hard-working school food professionals, SNA’s leadership questioned the veracity of both studies and dismissed them out of hand. From Time Magazine:

In a statement Monday, the School Nutrition Association said the survey’s “perceptions about school meals do not reflect reality.”  “More kids aren’t buying lunches,” Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association, tells TIME.

The studies did identify several areas where school food professionals need more assistance. I don’t think you’ll find any healthy school food advocates rejecting those findings — unlike Pratt-Heavner’s dismissal of findings that don’t fit neatly into SNA’s messaging strategy.

Increased plate waste was reported at middle and high schools, according to the studies.  Any parent of a middle or high schooler can tell you why that would be the case. Once students hit adolescence, they are rebellion central – railing against change and authority – and school food has always been something students love to hate. But that’s hardly a reason to roll back healthy nutrition standards, and all the more reason to stay the course.  As the studies demonstrated, with time, these kids will come around and accept the healthier food.  Schools dealing with excessive plate waste deserve more training, technical assistance and funding to help them, not a waiver from the standards.

The study also found that rural schools are far more likely to struggle with plate waste and declining participation.  While I’m speculating here, I suspect that rural schools may not have access to the same resources as their city and suburban counterparts. Focusing more training, technical assistance, grant opportunities and other resources on rural schools, makes far more sense than giving them a waiver and bringing back junk food.

Bettina Siegel of The Lunch Tray, reporting on the latest SNA misstep, laid out a sensible path for SNA to take to help both America’s students, who are struggling with epidemics of childhood obesity and diabetes, and the 10 percent of the nation’s schools struggling to successfully implement the new standards:

Just imagine how differently things would look today if the SNA had decided to stay the course on healthier school food. Instead of engaging in an unseemly, public battle with the White House, the organization could be closely allied with a still-hugely popular First Lady to jointly advance the cause of improved school nutrition, able to take advantage of all the prime PR opportunities only someone like Michelle Obama can offer.  Instead of using its considerable muscle on Capitol Hill to weaken or kill hard-fought legislative gains, the SNA could be using its clout to push Congress into helping the schools that need it.  And instead of churlishly lobbing criticism at this latest school food study, it could rely on the study to support its efforts – as well as joining with the rest of us in celebrating what is, unequivocally, very good news.

By continuing down this confrontational path, SNA has lost respect, credibility and support from advocates who once believed it was an ally in the fight to improve school nutrition.  It’s hard to believe that an organization dedicated to “advancing the quality of school meal programs through education and advocacy” is now acting as the main impediment between America’s students and healthier school food.

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

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