The School Nutrition Association (SNA) is the organization that oversees state and local school lunch programs. It has about 50,000 members from every school district in the country. New federal nutritional policies for school lunch programs are opening deep fissures in this once-unified SNA, which gathers this week for its annual meeting in Kansas City. On the eve of the annual meeting, SNA ended its 33-year relationship with attorney Marshall Matz, whose credentials included staffing the infamous Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, which was chaired by the late Sen. George McGovern. The decision to remove Matz was immediately challenged by Jane Wynn, a former SNA president from Florida. In a letter to fellow members, Wynn said that instead of being about “the children we serve,” SNA is on the verge of “becoming a trade association and that concerns me.” Matz and Roger Szemra of OFW Law were replaced on policy issues with Barnes & Thornburg, LLP, which was already SNA’s general counsel. Wynn said Barnes & Thornburg has “little expertise or credibility on nutrition programs.” This report on some truly inside baseball, which originally turned up in the Hagstrom Report, may seem a little obscure unless placed into a wider context. What is tearing apart the country’s school lunch directors and cafeteria mangers? It’s long been clear that the National School Lunch Program, serving 31 million meats in 100,000 schools, is big business. We’ve seen how the loss of a USDA contract for school lunches can quickly bankrupt a company. We’ve wondered whether “crony capitalism”  had anything to do with so-called “Greek” yogurt being accepted by USDA as a meat alternative because of its high protein content. School lunch programs in Arizona, Idaho, New York, and Tennessee get to come up with the lab rats for that one. And dried cranberries were suppose to be off the school lunch menu because of added sugar, but were not eliminated in newly released rules. Dried cranberries are back on the snack menu, and 250 Wisconsin cranberry growers are happy. Those kinds of decisions, dictating what the government is buying, and the $11 billion being spent per year has long made the National School Lunch Program big business. The difference now is that it is also big politics. The Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, the law most associated with First Lady Michelle Obama, has just made it that way. Rightly or wrongly, we are now seeing the failures of the new federal nutrition policy being put on Mrs. Obama. (I’ve said before, I don’t think that’s fair. She is not the one writing rules or administrating anything. She was just the head cheerleader for the policy.) But after one school year serving healthier meals, some school districts are having second thoughts because there is both too much waste and too many students complaining they are not getting enough to eat. Amy Anderson, food service director for the Carmel Clay School District in Indiana, says she is tired of being “a food cop,” and her program lost $300,000 last year as students stopped using the school cafeteria entirely. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is spending $3.2 billion over five years to implement the Hunger-Free Kids Act, and its annual subsidies for local school lunches are expected to rise by another $1 billion. But school lunch price increases are being reported all over the map. It’s pretty easy to see how food service directors are being pushed and pulled in every direction. They need to come up with meals that are satisfying enough that students won’t just throw them in the trash can or, worse yet, not even show up for a look at what’s on the menu. The same problem exists in the United Kingdom and the best they’ve come with is to ban surrounding restaurants from serving students. The attempt to use command and control regulations to address the failure of command and control regulations is always problematic. While its called the “Hunger-Free Kids Act,” its prescription for fighting obesity appears to be why some kids are complaining about not getting enough to eat. USDA’s obesity solution for the schools seems to be to give every kid in the grade level the same amount of calories, be it a big kid or a small kid. Kids are voting on all of this by dropping out the school lunch program and by tossing food in the dumpster in record quantities. So it’s not a happy time to be a school food director and its going to be hot in Kansas City this week.  The people who run our school cafeterias are going to have to decide whether they are going to be the nation’s obesity fighters or whether they are going to present their grievances to the powers that be in Washington, D.C. 

  • Janet

    The problem with obesity in kids is not from school lunches. It is because today’s children are less likely to get off of the couch and put down the video game controller than to get outside to play or participate in sports. Active kids are not fat kids. Parents need to encourage children to exercise more. In addition, most of those children that are obese eat at fast food restaurants for most meals. Fast food in moderation is fine, but parents should be providing healthy meals at home-not sending out for pizza or hitting the drive-thru night after night.