Earlier this week, UCS released new findings about what unequal access to healthy food means for peoples’ health. Diabetes, a diet-related disease that is ravaging families and communities, hits communities of color and those with low incomes the hardest. As my colleague and study author Lindsey Haynes-Maslow says, “a person’s ZIP code affects their chances of developing diabetes.” Lindsey examined county-level data across all U.S. counties, and found that having an additional healthy food retailer per 1,000 residents was associated with a small but significant decrease in a county’s diabetes rate. But the effect is three times larger in counties with above-average populations of color.
Lindsey’s report is the second in our series making the case for the next president to pay attention to our outdated, unhealthy, and inequitable food system and put in place a comprehensive national food policy to address it.
For many children, improving healthy food access starts at school
But well before the next president takes office, there’s a lot we can do to make healthy food more available to people who really need it. The national school lunch program and related federally-subsidized meal and snack programs are an obvious place to start.
We’ve written a lot over the past year or so about why it’s so important to ensure that children—especially low-income children of color—receive at least a half-cup of fruits and vegetables every day in taxpayer-subsidized school lunches. We’ve argued that it’s a bad idea to roll back that critically important minimum standard set by Congress and the USDA, or to weaken requirements aimed at reducing the sodium content and boosting the whole grain content of school meals, both of which help to reduce the amount of highly processed junk foods on kids’ lunch trays. And we’ve critiqued School Nutrition Association (and its corporate sponsors) for their role in efforts to reverse progress on healthy school food.
For months, legislation to update and reauthorize the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 was mostly stalled in Congress. Then in January, a Senate committee considered and unanimously approved a bipartisan bill that would preserve the law’s most important gains. Their colleagues in the House haven’t yet acted, but it appears they are poised to do so…and with decidedly partisan and potentially disastrous results.
The draft House bill isn’t all bad. It would raise the reimbursement rate for schools serving free lunches (something UCS has called for) by 2 cents per meal. But it would also take several steps backward, for example, opening the door to more pizza and French fries in schools, allowing frozen and canned fruits and vegetables to substitute for fresh produce, weakening the whole grain standard, and delaying implementation of sodium reductions. And as Politico reported last week, there is something else lurking in the draft that could blow up much of the progress made since 2010.
House bill could take free lunch away from millions of low-income kids
The draft bill—which as House committee is expected to consider as early as next week—includes a dramatic change to the existing law’s so-called “community eligibility provision,” of CEP. It’s a complicated and little-known provision, but essentially it allows schools with high poverty rates to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students without the need to document individual household incomes. Administrators at schools with large proportions of low-income children like the CEP because it reduces paperwork for them and poverty stigma for kids, and it ensures that all students who need free and reduced-price meals will get them.
The House draft would make it harder schools to qualify for CEP by requiring that 60 percent of their students prove their eligibility for meal assistance, rather than the current bar of 40 percent. According to an analysis by the smart folks at Politico (click and scroll down for the relevant story):
If a school has 40 percent of its students directly certified, which means that a student already qualifies for other programs like SNAP, it is likely to have some 65 percent of its students eligible for free or reduced-price meals. If a school is 60 percent directly certified — the threshold the House bill suggests — then around 96 percent of students in that school would likely qualify for free and reduced-price meals. So in real terms, schools with between 65 and 96 percent of their students qualifying for nutrition assistance would likely have to drop CEP.
If that happened, millions of low-income children could be out of luck. Again.
As UCS has just shown, better access to healthy food is important for bringing down diabetes rates among the most vulnerable Americans. With diabetes rates in children and young people on the rise, and medical science still working on solutions to reverse diet-related diabetes once people have it, it seems prevention is our best bet for sparing our kids and our neighbors’ kids a lifetime of suffering.
Free and reduced-price meals and more and better nutrition education at school are a critical way to address inequity by increasing healthy food access for low-income children and children of color. And they work. It would be a terrible shame to effectively yank that lifeline away from millions of kids.]]>
I’m a long-time member of the American Public Health Association (which sponsors NPHW), and a strong believer in prevention. I practice it personally: I don’t smoke; I do use seat belts, sunscreen, and my cough pocket; and I carry hand sanitizer with me everywhere I go (but especially on subways…eww).
Extending that kind of preventive action to whole communities and nations is what public health is all about. With organized efforts to educate the public, incentivize healthy behaviors, and discourage unhealthy ones, we can nip many risks in the bud, avoid unnecessary disease and injuries, and promote health and wellness for all. That’s good for people, of course, and it makes economic sense, too. As the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Unfortunately, we’re doing a lousy job of that in our food system today.
The US Department of Agriculture spends about $9 billion annually subsidizing crop insurance programs, mostly for corn, soybeans, and other processed food ingredients. Anyone with eyes can see the result—an overwhelming abundance of easily accessible, artificially cheap junk food, everywhere.
Our national obesity crisis and skyrocketing rates of diet-related diseases such as type 2 diabetes are the further result of all those in-your-face empty calories. According to recent estimates from the US Centers for Disease Control, nearly 30 million Americans suffer from diabetes, and the disease costs our country $245 billion annually. (A new report out from the World Health Organization today revealed that diabetes rates are up globally as well, nearly doubling since 1980.)
The New York Times reported a couple of weeks ago about a new proposal announced by the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The proposal would expand Medicare to pay for pre-diabetic patients to complete a program of diet and exercise counseling.
This is good. The patients it would help have a condition called pre-diabetes, which means they already have high blood sugar, just not high enough to be full-on type 2 diabetes. Without intervention, they are at risk of becoming diabetic within 10 years. Preventing that outcome is important for these patients, their families, and the health care system, for sure. A federally funded eight-state study of Medicare patients enrolled in programs such as those HHS now proposes to cover found that taxpayers saved more than enough per patient over 15 months to cover the costs.
Still, an initiative like this is what the public health community calls “secondary” prevention. And once people are already diabetic, any interventions are “tertiary,” helping them manage this complicated health condition. Both are important, and can prevent or blunt some of the worst consequences of a disease like diabetes. But what if, as a nation, we set our aim a little higher on the prevention scale?
Primary prevention means addressing the root causes of disease—in the case of obesity and type 2 diabetes, our unhealthy national diet heavy in processed foods. But that doesn’t happen today, because our system of food policy isn’t about health, it’s about money. So subsidies for junk food ingredients continue, in one form or another, despite widespread opposition. Efforts to help Americans eat more healthfully are mostly small-scale or, in the case of the HHS initiative described above, too far downstream. Even improving national dietary recommendations to help educate Americans about healthier choices is an uphill climb; when federal agencies had the chance to do so recently, they largely punted.
And it seems to be the case that this country isn’t very good at prevention in the health arena generally. According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, for every dollar we spend on health care, only about four cents goes towards public health and prevention. A 2015 report by the Commonwealth Fund examined healthcare spending and health outcomes in the United States and 12 other wealthy countries, and the results weren’t pretty: we spend a lot more, and yet are less healthy.
We can do much better, and I’d argue that a comprehensive national food policy that aligns our current food and health systems is an obvious place to start. Rather than spending billions to subsidize junk food ingredients, and then spending billions more to address the health outcomes of our national diet, we could get serious about prevention, and overhaul food and health policies around that notion.
As in, increased incentives for farmers to grow fruits and vegetables. Greatly expanded initiatives to make fresh produce available and affordable in low-income neighborhoods. More robust investment to ensure that every kid in America gets healthy school meals and nutrition education at an early age. And so on.
That is what prevention would look like.
CORRECTION: This post originally stated that global diabetes rates had quadrupled globally since 1980. The global prevalence of diabetes has quadrupled, but the rate (percentage of population) has only nearly doubled.]]>
That’s the finding of a survey released last week by Politico. The political news site polled food experts from across the political spectrum, asking a range of questions about the problems they see in that system, and about possible solutions. These are folks who spend their days studying how our food system works, from within academia, advocacy organizations, Congress and federal agencies, and the food and biotechnology industries. Surprisingly, the 36 expert respondents agreed to a large degree that the solutions require more government action.
For full disclosure, my colleague Dr. Ricardo Salvador was among the experts surveyed. An agricultural scientist by training and Director of UCS’s Food and Environment Program, Ricardo described why greater government action is needed to solve the obesity crisis, for example:
The U.S. spends $190 billion annually to treat obesity. A problem of this magnitude cannot be solved with by single policy change. In order to reduce the tremendous burden on our healthcare system, we must coordinate our work throughout the federal government. A smart, coordinated food policy that supports healthy food, sustainable farms, and social and economic justice could improve public health and save taxpayers money.
Rise of the Food Voter?
Even as the 2016 presidential race grows ever more divisive and petty, our Plate of the Union initiative is staying focused on critical issues that really matter to all Americans—their food and their health. In a national poll released last fall, we showed that the American voting public cares—greatly—about these issues, which is why we’re calling on “food voters” to ask the next president to get to work fixing them in a comprehensive way.
Now, this notion of food voters seems to be catching on.
Earlier this month, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health released the results of a national poll exploring American attitudes in the wake of apparent political meddling in the process that produced the federal government’s latest dietary guidelines. Of the 800 Americans JHU surveyed, nearly three-quarters believe the guidelines should have included environmental provisions to help consumers support sustainable agriculture practices while eating healthfully. And the results cut across political lines, revealing that the “food vote” isn’t partisan.
The global sustainability site Triple Pundit also jumped on the bandwagon, offering this handy guide for readers to determine if they are, in fact, food voters.
And recently, the Huffington Post sought to pin down the presidential contenders, sending each candidate a list of questions about how they would address the concerns of food voters. Upon receiving no replies, senior reporter Joseph Erbentraut observed that the candidates “seriously don’t seem to care about our food supply.”
Clearly, food voters will need to flex their muscles to press candidates to fix the food system. And they must. Because it surely isn’t going to fix itself.]]>
This Wednesday night in prime time, PBS stations across the country will air a new documentary based on the best-selling book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. In the film, as in the book, author Michael Pollan tells the story of our broken food system and offers advice for making change through our daily food choices.
The film is a damning critique of the food industry and a public that, for decades, has been all too ready to believe its marketing. Pollan examines early processed food “marvels” like Wonder Bread and corn flakes, both of which involved stripping nutrients out of food and then adding vitamins back in. Ingenious! He walks the aisles of a modern supermarket, noting the health claims screaming from cereal boxes—“heart-healthy,” “high in protein,” “gluten free,” and wonders aloud why apples and broccoli make no such claims. “Well, they don’t have packages. They don’t have big budgets. The quieter the food, likely, the healthier the food.”
Throughout the film, interviews with health experts are interspersed with Pollan’s engaging narration as he recounts more than a century of nutrition fads that turned out to be faulty. In the late 1800s, protein was deemed unhealthful, and the refined-grain breakfast cereal was born. Starting in the 1950s, fat became public enemy #1, and Americans were sold on margarine and fat-free cookies.
Over the years, Pollan asserts, the public became preoccupied with “nutrients” rather than “foods,” and a cult of what he calls “nutritionism” arose and persists to the present day. Simultaneously, we have a population that is overweight, plagued with diet-related chronic diseases such as diabetes, and unsure of what to eat.
On the positive side, the film features case studies of innovative nutrition education projects. These include a South Bronx program training at-risk youth to be gardeners and chefs, growing vegetables hydroponically and preparing them all in the same building. Many of these kids are eating salads fresh vegetables for the first time in their lives. Their teacher contends, “If you expose people to locally grown healthy food they tend to like it,” but notes that people make decisions based on what they can afford and what is available in their neighborhoods, which is frequently junk food.
A major message of the film is that healthy eating doesn’t have to be complicated. New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle (who also advises UCS, and has a great blog) contends that you don’t have to be a scientist to know how to eat.
“Everybody can eat a healthy diet…without knowing thing one about the biology of nutrients,” Nestle says. “Just go around the outside of the supermarket and pick up fruits, vegetables, meat, and stay out of the processed foods, because they’re fun to eat once in a while but they shouldn’t be daily fare.”
And Pollan offers his own rules for healthy eating. “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” To back up the latter point, the film cites UCS findings about the reduction in cardiovascular diseases (and health-care costs) that would come from eating more fruits and vegetables. There’s also, “Make water your beverage of choice.” And you might be skeptical about “Use smaller plates and glasses,” but food psychology research shows you’ll eat less!
Finally, Pollan touches on government’s role in creating our unhealthy food system, and the role it could have helping Americans eat a healthier diet. (Of course, there is push-back to that notion from food corporations, who have responded much like the tobacco industry before them.)
And this, I think, is the most important piece of the puzzle. While all of us, as individuals, can make better food choices, those choices alone can’t solve our food and public health crisis. That’s because we are surrounded every day by food environments that make healthy choices difficult. And people at the bottom of the economic ladder have the hardest time, by far.
Just last week, I read Washington Post op-ed by a young woman who says she ate only unprocessed foods for a year. Tucson-based Megan Kimble joined a CSA for weekly deliveries of fresh local vegetables. She learned to can tomatoes, and ground her own whole-grain flour. She wrote a book about the experience.
I too have made yogurt at home—in a slow-cooker, using locally-produced organic milk. I’ve pickled home-grown hot peppers and green tomatoes. These DIY foods were delicious, and I felt self-sufficient and very pleased with myself. Look what I made! Take that, agri-food conglomerates!
But I know these sorts of adventures-in-urban-homesteading are a luxury mostly reserved for people like me—an upper-middle class, educated, childless person—who have the time, tools, and money to experiment. Even farmers markets are out of reach for many. If we want to ensure that all Americans have affordable access to healthy foods, public policies will have to begin prioritizing that outcome.
And they must, because our nation’s health is at stake, and with it, our future.
That’s why UCS has joined with partners to launch Plate of the Union, a campaign to mobilize a broad range of Americans—including farmers, scientists, community activists, thought leaders, chefs, and ordinary citizens—to call for healthy and affordable food that is also fair to food workers and sustainable. If we’re successful, the next president will take bold steps to improve our food system.
So check out In Defense of Food on PBS this week (Dec 30, 9pm/8 Central, check local listings), and by all means, resolve in 2016 to eat more salads, drink more water, cut back on sugar, and bake your own whole-grain bread.
But also take the next step: Join us in making food political, so we can fix our food system for everyone.
Find out how.]]>
Take University of Minnesota doctoral student Jim Eckberg, for example. In a study conducted at the university’s Rosemount Research and Outreach Center, Eckberg is investigating how planting native prairie flowers and willow trees near soybean crops might have multiple benefits for farmers and the environment. Eckberg’s USDA-funded research project was looking for biological ways to suppress a troublesome pest called the soybean aphid, but they’re finding other benefits of their unique system integrating deep-rooted native plants and trees into fields that would otherwise just grow soybeans. These benefits include attracting pollinators and other beneficial insects, increasing soybean yields, and providing farmers with an additional useful product—the woody biomass from the fast-growing willows, which grow even faster when planted near soybeans, and which can be sold as a source of bioenergy.
And then there is the work of Bill Deen at the University of Guelph in Canada. Bill works in a region that, like the Midwestern United States a little to his south, features acre upon acre of farmland growing just two crops—corn and soybeans. He started his presentation by pointing out that this simple two-crop rotation is associated with a lot of problems, including soil depletion, high global warming emissions, and yield instability. His research team is investigating whether more complex cropping systems would be better for farmers, particularly in the face of harsh weather conditions. In a long-term experiment at two research sites in Ontario, they’re comparing the typical corn-soy system with systems that incorporate wheat and a red clover cover crop. Surprisingly, they have found that even just the addition of wheat increases corn and soy yields dramatically. And in hot, dry years—the kind that can devastate farmers’ crops—this “rotation effect” is even greater.
These are just two the fascinating presentations I heard this week. And they’re two examples of agroecology—the science of managing lands to boost the health of farms, ranches, and surrounding environments—at work. Increasingly, scientists like Jim Eckberg and Bill Deen are showing that agroecology works, and we’re learning more about its myriad (and sometimes surprising) benefits every day.
But as my colleague, agroecologist Marcia DeLonge, wrote earlier this week, this important field of science is understudied and underfunded. While USDA is certainly funding a lot of great research (including Jim Eckberg’s), Marcia’s new analysis reveals that it’s a pretty small piece of the department’s total research grant portfolio. Only 15 percent of USDA grant funding for agricultural research in 2014 incorporated any element of agroecology. A much smaller fraction goes deep into this science.
Crazy, right? If public agencies like the USDA don’t support more of this important research, who will? Agroecological systems require fewer purchased inputs like pesticides and commercial fertilizers than today’s typical farming systems. So big agribusiness companies have no incentive to promote them, and in fact every reason to deny their superiority to their own industrial model.
A recent report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service tells a similar story. In particular, I was struck by the following graph from that report:
Note that levels of public funding for crop research remained flat between 1979 and 2009, while for-profit research increased dramatically. And combined spending on crop development positively dwarfs research on the environmental, health, and social impacts of our agriculture and food system, which is entirely publicly funded.
So where does this leave farmers who need unbiased answers to challenges like pests, weeds, farm pollution, and sub-par yields? The same place it leaves a lot of scientists at this very meeting…far too beholden to these folks:
Congress overhauled the legislation governing taxpayer-supported school meal programs in 2010 with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, and new requirements for meals served in the nation’s schools took effect starting in 2012. As I have written, food-industry backed voices soon began clamoring for these stricter rules to be weakened and their allies in Congress started trying to roll back those standards more than a year ago.
According to the national poll released this week by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation,* the public overwhelmingly disagrees with that strategy. More than two-thirds of the 1,200 randomly sampled adults surveyed said the nutritional quality of food served in public school cafeterias is “excellent or good.” Eighty-six percent of respondents said the current nutrition standards should stay the same or be strengthened. And a whopping 93 percent said it’s important for schools to serve nutritious foods to support children’s health and ensure that they are ready to learn and be successful. Interestingly, only 29 percent of the poll respondents are parents of school-age children. So this is not just an issue of parents looking out for their own kids.
Of course, these large majorities are absolutely right. As UCS analysis documented last February, school lunch programs are helping children eat healthier. In particular, stronger nutrition standards put into place since 2010 have significantly increased fruit and vegetable consumption at school.
And research shows that what kids eat early in life—for example, at school—can either set them on a healthful path or on a path to illness and misery. Obese children are 10 times more likely than their peers to become obese adults—and adult obesity has serious health consequences, including increased risk of type II diabetes, hypertension, and other chronic diseases. These impacts not only mean shorter and less fulfilling lives for millions of Americans; they also carry a heavy price tag in health care costs.
While the opponents of healthy school lunch rules have employed a variety of easily-refuted excuses, this poll makes clear that Americans aren’t buying it. And neither should Congress, which is set to take up legislation governing school meal programs when it returns from its August recess, just as the nation’s kids go back to school.
In related news, a new report by the Pew Charitable Trusts details the findings of another survey that provides a suggestion of how the quality of school food could be further improved. Pew’s survey of more than 3,300 school food service directors nationwide found that school nutrition staff say they need additional training to help them serve healthy meals to their students and run successful school meal programs.
This is a suggestion UCS can get behind…in fact, we already have! Instead of tearing down the school lunch program, our common-sense recommendations include giving the nation’s “lunch ladies” more tools, training, and dollars to build on the success they have already achieved. If school lunch legislation needs a “fix” at all, it’s this.
*Full disclosure: UCS receives funding from WKKF for our work on school lunch and other food and agriculture policy issues.]]>
Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported very encouraging progress in the effort to make school lunches healthier for America’s children: 95 percent of schools nationwide have successfully implemented the new healthy school food rules stemming from the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.
According to the USDA’s state-by-state assessment of 19,721 school food authorities, the vast majority reported successful compliance with the new nutrition requirements. Seventeen states reported 100 percent compliance, including some that are, shall we say, not known for healthy eating (we’re looking at you, North Carolina). And the remaining struggling schools are mostly concentrated in just a few states and territories. (For example, apparently only one of Guam’s three school food authorities reported full implementation, for a 33 percent compliance rate.)
So SNA’s “some” amounts to just five percent of the nation’s schools. And most people would see this as a victory, but not SNA. As reported by Politico, the organization’s spokesperson testified at a recent hearing and said of the 95 percent compliance finding:
Wait, what? I’ve been out of school a long time, but unless things have changed more than I realized, 95 percent is still a solid “A.” So I’d say a 95 percent compliance rate is more than material. It’s indisputable evidence of success.
Not that it isn’t important to help that last struggling five percent of schools. But the USDA is bending over backward to do just that. And instead of accepting that help and lobbying for more if it’s needed, SNA keeps acting like the Little Engine That Couldn’t. They’re telling Congress—and anyone else who will listen—that healthy lunch rules have to go.
One year ago, the USA Today reported on SNA’s increasing lobbying expenditures, which had doubled from the first quarter of 2014 to the second quarter. A quick review of SNA’s most recent lobbying reports on the House of Representatives lobbying disclosure website this week reveals that the trend continued into the fall of 2014, with SNA ramping up its lobby expenditures again by 75 percent.
In all, over a one-year period starting April 1, 2014 and ending March 31, 2015, SNA spent more than $400,000 lobbying to persuade Congress to roll back the school meal standards.
All that so that five percent of schools don’t have to do the work that the other 95 percent have done successfully.
As the National Journal reported earlier this week from SNA’s annual national conference:
“Educational sessions…and a walk around the trade-show floor raise questions about whether changing the regulations is a priority for school food-service directors. The legislative-policy session was lightly attended, while sessions on how to manage employees and how to convince children to eat healthier foods were filled.”
This is good news, and suggests that SNA’s leaders (and its corporate sponsors) aren’t getting much traction with its membership.
And in an email sent to UCS and other organizations yesterday, USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Food and Nutrition Consumer Services Katie Wilson detailed her agency’s outreach to SNA members in Salt Lake City this week:
“Numerous USDA staff across multiple programs and initiatives attended the conference. We hosted over a dozen sessions on topics such as implementing the Community Eligibility Provision, successful strategies for reducing food waste, and creative ways to season food with less sodium. We also set-up several booths on “USDA Lane” to talk to attendees one-on-one and connect them with a variety of resources including informational hand-outs, student workbooks, cookbooks, and online tools. Throughout the conference, we were able to provide examples of ideas and best practices from the more than 95% of school meal programs currently meeting the updated nutrition standards to encourage and inspire attendees.”
So despite all of SNA’s excuses, it appears that the persistent efforts of school foodservice professionals and the USDA are working.
In creative school districts across the country, intrepid lunch ladies (and gentlemen) are proving every day how flimsy the excuses really are. They’re doing away with processed junk food and still balancing the books. They’re getting kids to eat whole grain grits and biscuits, salads and tofu, and locally grown butternut squash. They’re experimenting with less salt but more flavor. They’re proving that school lunches can be healthy and delicious, and setting America’s children on a path to better health and greater productivity throughout their lives.
Let’s hear it for the lunch ladies! (And gentlemen.)
And now, having taken aim at the leaders of SNA over the last week on this blog, I want to say a word to their allies in Congress. One of them, Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-WI), reportedly said at recent hearing:
“To force [schools] to serve food that hungry kids throw out maybe tops the list of things the federal government shouldn’t be doing.”
But he couldn’t be more wrong.
Congressman, here’s what tops the list of things the federal government shouldn’t be doing: Spending the taxpayers’ money on junk food that makes children sick.
So don’t do that.
That’s right, SNA is telling Congress that America’s kids are at some risk of harm from reduced sodium levels in school foods. Back in March, while hosting their annual legislative conference here in Washington DC, SNA tweeted the comments of conference speaker Dr. Robert P. Heaney:
Do we want our body to have to continually compensate for low sodium? Or have an intake that is appropriate?
Really? Low sodium is a risk for today’s kids? Not according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which have found that 90 percent of U.S. children ages 6-18 eat too much sodium daily.
This is an issue because in implementing the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA), USDA rules required schools to reduce sodium levels in school breakfast and lunch in a step-wise fashion over ten years. Schools had to meet the so-called Target 1 level for sodium during the past academic year; implementation of Target 2 levels is due in 2017-18 and final sodium reductions in 2022-23.
That’s a pretty long time-horizon, and it’s worth noting that it’s less aggressive than what the national Institute of Medicine recommended in 2009.
Still, SNA has lobbied Congress for a rule change that would keep sodium levels at Target 1 indefinitely. And in its recent white paper on sodium targets, SNA says “the ubiquity of sodium in the diet of children” and “the preference for salty foods” creates “substantial challenges” for schools. In other words, don’t ask us to do hard things.
SNA’s white paper also reviews the scientific literature on sodium intake and health impacts. Many of the studies they cite focus on adults, but they also reviewed some studies that looked at kids. Their conclusion? Children aren’t at risk of hypertension from too much sodium.
The American Heart Association has challenged that notion, but even if sodium doesn’t pose a major health risk during childhood, isn’t that kind of beside the point? After all, children grow up to be adults, who are then at greater risk of diet-related hypertension. And studies like this one show that what people eat as children shapes their taste preferences and eating habits as adults.
Meanwhile, this CDC infographic includes a Top 10 list of foods that contribute to sodium in children’s diets. Unsurprisingly, that list includes pizza, cold cuts, “savory snacks” (I’m looking at you, Reduced Fat Nacho Cheese Doritos), and chicken nuggets.
Now, who would want to keep those foods in schools? SNA’s corporate sponsors, perhaps?]]>
I have written previously (here and here) about SNA. This weekend, the association will host its Annual National Conference (ANC) in Salt Lake City. This is SNA’s largest conference of the year, expected to draw more than 6,000 attendees from around the country. With a stated theme of “Explore-Discover-Inspire,” the ANC is supposed to be primarily about educating school nutrition professionals—the people who run and implement school lunch programs—about how to do their jobs better. But it’s hard to overlook the influence of the processed food industry on the conference, and on SNA and its members.
It has been heavily documented (summarized by me here, colorfully illustrated by UCS, and detailed more recently here) that processed food companies are major funders of SNA, including sponsoring their conferences. And let’s be clear: that industry’s purpose and goal is not to help school food professionals do their jobs better. Instead, its purpose is to SELL. MORE. PRODUCT.
Which is exactly what the industry will seek to do in Salt Lake City over the next several days. One commentator described last year’s ANC—in words and photos—as a veritable junk food smorgasbord, with pizza, Pop-Tarts, and whatever this is everywhere.
This is important, because, dismayingly, SNA has been a vocal advocate for reversing healthy school lunch standards, a position they’ve maintained as recently as last week. And over the past year or two, the association has publicly stated a wide variety of reasons for why Congress should roll back healthy school lunch standards.
In the next several days, my colleague Lindsey Haynes-Maslow and I will take on selected excuses and show why they’re wrong, or just plain silly. Here’s the first one.
In the December 2014 issue of their magazine, School Nutrition, SNA published an article (starting on page 36 here) detailing the unfortunate difficulty some schools were having getting their hands on sufficient quantities of reformulated junk foods like reduced-fat Doritos and, yes, whole grain Rice Krispies Treats.
Can you say, missing the point? Rather than substituting junk food with slightly better junk food, shouldn’t SNA be focused on helping schools truly transform the lunch tray?
But that’s not the approach SNA has chosen to take. Last month, the association’s incoming vice president Lynn Harvey asked at a Congressional hearing for changes to school lunch rules “that would enable us to provide foods that children like and will accept.”
Yes, kids like Rice Krispies Treats. But since when do we allow children to determine what they will or won’t “accept” on their plates? When I was a kid in school (admittedly, a long time ago), the grown-ups were in charge. Shouldn’t that be true in the cafeteria as well as the classroom?
Also, doesn’t Ms. Harvey understand how teaching children and changing their behavior works? Studies show that children’s eating habits must be shaped early on and with repeated exposure to healthy foods.
Just like teaching math, teaching kids to prefer (or at least “accept”) more nutritious food takes time and effort. But it’s worth it, and as UCS showed in a report earlier this year, school lunch is critical to helping children, especially the most vulnerable kids, eat a healthier diet. And the grown-ups at school should keep at it (as most of them, not incidentally, are doing successfully—more about that next week).
In the next few days, this blog will highlight and rebut selected other excuses we’ve heard from SNA and their members and allies, ranging from the high cost of fruit to the dangers of low sodium (yes, really). And we’ll be following (from afar) the proceedings in Salt Lake City. Stay tuned.
Meanwhile, to SNA and its leaders and members heading to Salt Lake City this weekend, I say:
Do your homework. Do it right. And stop making excuses.]]>
Over the last two years the School Nutrition Association (SNA) has abruptly switched sides on this issue, fired its lobbyist, and stuck its thumb in the eye of First Lady Michelle Obama, once an ally. It’s doing all this over the objections of many of its own members and former leaders, and in the face of evidence that the new rules are working. Oh, and SNA wants us to believe that corporate sponsorships and contributions from “Big Food” have nothing to do with it.
Over the years, I’ve seen a lot organizations and coalitions with misleading names that belie their true intent. For example, the Center for Consumer Freedom isn’t a consumer group at all, but a front group for the food and beverage industry. So what’s the story with SNA?
Strangely, the organization was for healthy school lunches before they were against them. They helped push the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act through Congress in 2010, yet now they are leading the opposition to its key provisions as Congress gets ready to reauthorize the law for another five years. In an article last summer, Politico reporter Helena Bottemiller Evich wrote about SNA’s sudden and nearly complete about-face on USDA school lunch rules that took effect in 2012. Her story detailed the twists and turns that led SNA to back an effort by House Republicans to legislate a broad waiver from the school lunch rules. The saga, complete with the sacking of the association’s long-time lobbyist, was further detailed in a lengthy New York Times magazine article last fall.
So why the 180? SNA offers a variety of arguments, but it’s hard to overlook a steady stream of junk food industry money.
April Fools? Not really. The truth about who funds School Nutrition Association @schoollunch http://t.co/ilaCxCFWsc pic.twitter.com/d2haAVw7Sq
— Concerned Scientists (@UCSUSA) April 1, 2015
Politico’s Evich reviewed public tax filings and found that food company sponsorships and contributions make up about half of SNA’s $10 million annual operating budget. Corporate sponsors include little-known players like Schwan Foods, which claims to supply 70 percent of the frozen pizzas sold and served in schools. The list also includes much more familiar junk food purveyors: PepsiCo (maker of Pepsi, Mountain Dew, and the Frito-Lay snack line, among other products), General Mills (whose cereal offerings include Lucky Charms—marshmallows for breakfast, yay!—and the surprisingly sugary Cheerios Protein line), and Domino’s Pizza.
A casual review of SNA’s website reveals that corporate influence takes a variety of shapes. For example, here’s PepsiCo ponying up to sponsor (at up to $4,999) SNA’s Legislative Action Conference just last month—in return getting the privilege of serving their Cheetos at conference breaks. Last July, PepsiCo, General Mills, and Domino’s all sponsored SNA’s large annual conference, kicking in $10,000-$24,999 apiece. (Blogger Dana Woldow breaks down the sponsorship opportunities in great detail here. And the Environmental Working Group illustrates the relative influence of various SNA sponsors here.)
Representatives from PepsiCo and Schwan Foods also sit on the Board of SNA’s so-called philanthropic sister organization, the School Nutrition Foundation, which provides educational grants to school food professionals. WalMart and Schwan are listed among top SNF donors.
SNA’s leadership has expressed dismay at charges of corporate influence, and has offered a variety of alternative explanations for their healthy lunch flip-flop. But these arguments just don’t hold up to scrutiny.
SNA claims that kids just don’t like the new healthier school lunches, and are throwing away more food as a result. My colleague Lindsey Haynes-Maslow recently took on that issue (here and here), and found that new studies suggest “plate waste” (how much food kids throw away) is not a bigger problem than it was before the updated standards took effect. Another study from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation suggests that students are accepting the new lunches. And according to this poll, parents also overwhelmingly support them.
SNA also says that the updated nutrition rules are just too onerous for its members to meet. But the USDA has reported that 90 percent of the nation’s schools have successfully implemented the standards. And a number of innovative school districts implemented them early and with great success. These include school districts in Norfolk, Virginia; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Riverside, California. Of course, that’s not to say that every school district is having success. Some are struggling, and though they’re relatively few, their difficulties are real. That’s why the USDA is offering additional technical assistance and mentoring.
SNA could also lobby hard for even more help. Federal school meal programs operate on the basis of per-meal subsidies, and higher reimbursement rate would make it a lot easier for all schools to meet the standards. But up until February, SNA wouldn’t even ask Congress for that. Now, their latest position paper does include a call for a 35-cent increase per meal, which UCS also supports. But some observers are skeptical about whether SNA will put its lobbying weight behind that request or simply continue to focus on weakening the nutrition standards.
All of this has led to what looks like an ugly civil war within SNA’s ranks. Last May, nineteen past SNA presidents broke with the current leadership, writing an open letter to Congress. More recently, two enterprising school lunch bloggers created another open letter for rank and file SNA members, which 86 members signed and sent to SNA’s board.
In a bizarre new twist, Politico’s Evich reported just this week that SNA had filed an ethics complaint seeking to have its long-time lobbyist (also a lawyer) disbarred. That story (behind a paywall) quotes former SNA President Jane Wynn in an email to friends:
“I am filled with deep emotion today,” Wynn wrote. “I find myself not believing what I know to be true. … Indeed, SNA was the leader in child nutrition, a position I do not believe we can claim today,” added Wynn, who used to oversee school meals in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for one of the largest school districts in the country. “I was, and continue to be, shocked that SNA would go further and attempt to have [the former lobbyist and his law partner] disbarred.”
If SNA is no longer a leader in child nutrition, who is looking out for kids?
With a coalition of allies, UCS is working to defend and improve the 2010 law to ensure that all kids get healthy food at school. We hope SNA’s leadership will come to its senses and join us.]]>