Beyond Irony: School Lunch Group Disputes Study That Finds Kids Like Healthier School Meals

Cafeteria lunch

Imagine a restaurant getting a great review, only to have the chef call the newspaper to complain that the critic was sorely mistaken.

That bizarre scenario was all I could think of when I received an email yesterday from the School Nutrition Association (SNA), relaying SNA president Julia Bauscher’s refutation of a new, peer-reviewed study in Childhood Obesity finding that kids actually like the healthier school food mandated by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA).

Specifically, University of Illinois at Chicago researchers asked school administrators at 537 elementary schools about their students’ reactions to school meals after the HHFKA’s nutritional improvements went into effect. Just over half of the respondents said their students initially complained about nutritionally improved school meals, but 70 percent agreed their students now actually like the lunches. Even more encouraging, the study found that at socioeconomically disadvantaged schools (where school meals are of obvious, critical importance to student health), administrators perceived that “more students were buying lunch and that students were eating more of the meal than in the previous year.”

For anyone who cares about school food reform and the health of America’s school children, these findings are great news.

But, perversely, this good news actually poses a serious threat to the SNA, the nation’s largest organization of school food professionals.  That’s because, despite having supported the HHFKA’s passage back in 2010, the SNA is now fighting vigorously to roll back in Congress many of the law’s key nutritional requirements—and it is doing so on the grounds that kids are allegedly rejecting healthier school food en masse.

The organization has so become entrenched in promoting this pessimistic view of student acceptance (despite contrary evidence from school districts around the country), that it raised eyebrows even among some of its own members by refusing to allow Sam Kass, former White House chef and Executive Director of Let’s Move!, to speak at its annual national conference in Boston last week. And the SNA previously saw 19 of its past presidents break ranks in an open letter to Congress–an extraordinary, public display of the internal strife over the SNA’s current legislative agenda.

It was hard for me to imagine the situation getting much uglier, until yesterday’s email presented the truly bizarre spectacle of the very people dedicated to preparing healthful school meals seeking to discredit reliable evidence that kids actually like those meals.

I’m disgusted and saddened by this turn of events. Back in May, I wrote a post (“School Food Professionals vs. Kids: How Did It Come to This?) to convey my respect and empathy for school food service directors (FSDs) around the country, who I sincerely believe have one of the hardest jobs imaginable.  Through no fault of FSDs, the National School Lunch Program, as it is currently conceived, often directly pits their legitimate financial concerns against the nutritional needs of the children they serve. But instead of trying to bridge that gap by fighting for funding and other support for struggling school districts, the SNA, which claims in its mission statement to be “committed to advancing the quality of school meal programs,” chose to take the easy way out.

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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.

Nonetheless, despite this study’s encouraging findings, I’ll be keeping my champagne on ice.  Because regardless of what happens with SNA’s desired one-year waiver language in the pending 2015 appropriations bill, the 2015 Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR) is looming large and the SNA clearly views the law as its best chance to permanently roll back key HHFKA nutrition standards relating to sodium, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and a la carte offerings.

So, all those elementary school kids* who grew accustomed to—and eventually grew to like—healthier school food?  If the SNA has its way, they might not be seeing it for much longer.

_________________

* Many of us in the school food reform world have long predicted that elementary school kids would be the first to come around to healthier school food because they haven’t had years of seeing junk food in their cafeterias. More here: “Putting My Money on the Class of 2024.”

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Bettina Elias Siegel is a nationally recognized writer and commentator on issues relating to children and food. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Houston Chronicle, and other publications. She's the author of Kid Food: The Challenge of Feeding Children in a Highly Processed Worldand writes the weekly Substack newsletter, The Lunch Tray. Read more >

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