The School Nutrition Association: Has Big Food Co-opted the Lunch Lady Lobby?

U.S. school children need healthier food, and stronger school lunch standards can help ensure they get it. Yet the nation’s leading association of school food professionals is lobbying to weaken those standards.

If there's one thing that everyone involved in the debate over school food policy should agree on, it's that kids need healthy food. Yet far too many children, especially low-income and minority children, aren't getting enough of it.

The stakes are high, as we explain in our 2015 report Lessons from the Lunchroom and accompanying infographic. Childhood obesity nearly tripled between 1970 and 2000, and while its growth has leveled off for white children, it continues to climb for African American and Hispanic children. Obese children are likely to become obese adults, and obese adults face higher risks of many serious (and costly) health problems.

Stronger standards make a difference

Since many children have limited access to healthy food outside the school day, ensuring that their federally subsidized school meals feature plenty of fruits and vegetables is a crucial public health goal. The 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) laid down stricter standards for school lunch programs in the hope of making progress toward this goal.

The good news is that the HHFKA standards, implemented beginning in 2012, appear to be working. While some districts are finding compliance more challenging than others, the evidence shows that the standards really are helping kids eat healthier—and this means we should be providing better support and resources to struggling districts, rather than letting them opt out.

A puzzling position

No one has a better firsthand view of these challenges and opportunities than the women and men who prepare and serve food at our nation's schools—the proverbial “lunch ladies”. Yet the organization that represents these professionals nationally, the School Nutrition Association (SNA), has since 2013 aligned itself with those who call for reversing recent gains by making HHFKA standards optional.

The SNA, representing over 55,000 members, describes its mission as "advancing the quality of school meal programs through education and advocacy." So it's puzzling that instead of putting its advocacy muscle behind stronger school food standards, the SNA, in its position paper on HHFKA reauthorization, advocates "grant[ing] individual SFAs [schools or school districts] the authority to decide whether students are required to take a fruit or vegetable as part of a reimbursable meal."

Big Food, big bucks

One answer to the puzzle may lie in the organization's close relationship with the processed food industry. As a 2014 Politico article noted,

About half of the group’s $10 million operating budget comes from food industry members, including membership fees and sponsorship opportunities, according to a review of public tax filings. At SNA’s annual conference, companies can pay $15,000 to sponsor an education session track featuring a company representative or $20,000 to put their logo on the hotel key cards. The largest chunk of the group’s revenue is generated at its annual conference, which brought in $4.7 million in 2012.

Among the most prominent food industry sponsors of SNA activities are well-known processed-food giants PepsiCo, General Mills, and Domino's. All three companies were major sponsors of SNA's 2014 annual conference and other recent SNA events.

It’s time for the SNA to stop serving up Big Food’s school lunch policy recipes and start making healthy food for our nation's children its top priority.

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