School Nutrition Association aims to shut down member petition on healthy school food

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School food service directors, if you dare publicly disagree with the policy direction of the School Nutrition Association (SNA) you are in for an unpleasant surprise.  Your voice will likely be quashed.

On Friday, the SNA sent out an urgent email to its members, the nation’s school food service professionals, warning them not to sign-on to an online letter circulating among its membership.  The letter opposes SNA’s controversial request to Congress for waivers from and a rollback of healthy school nutrition standards.

At the request of concerned SNA members, Bettina Elias Siegel and I spearheaded the creation of the on-line letter with additional input from supportive school food service directors and other advocates.  While Bettina and I are not SNA members, we are long-time, vocal advocates of healthier school food, and have gotten to know like-minded school food professionals around the nation.

The letter, which was first circulated on Oct. 9, respectfully asks the SNA Board of Directors to “withdraw support for any provision in Agriculture Appropriations or other legislation that would waive school nutrition standards.” The letter continues:

“We are deeply concerned that the reputation of our organization and its members are being damaged by the ongoing requests to weaken or waive school nutrition standards. While we agree that some aspects of the updates to the standards are challenging, we favor targeted and constructive solutions that do not involve Congress waiving school meal or snack standards.”

The full sign-on letter can be viewed by clicking here.

The letter clearly alarmed the SNA’s Board of Directors. On Oct.10, they sent their urgent email to members stating that while SNA “welcomes the diversity of opinions in our Association,” members should not sign-on to the open letter. Here is the text of the SNA email:

October 10, 2014

Urgent Message from SNA Board

Dear SNA Member – 
As your Association’s elected leaders, we have always urged members to voice their thoughts and concerns to the Board. Throughout implementation of the new school meal regulations, SNA has maintained a constant stream of open communication with members through various channels.

For this reason, we were troubled to learn of this open letter to SNA’s Board of Directors expressing concerns about SNA’s advocacy efforts.

SNA welcomes the diversity of opinions in our Association, and we consider all member input when developing or approving SNA positions. Members should be aware that this letter will try to discredit the Association and limit SNA’s efforts to advocate on your behalf for any kind of flexibility under the new standards.

With efforts like “Are You an SNA Member Who Supports Healthier School Food? Sign This Letter,” it is clear that the letter was intended to divide SNA members and depict those who seek any flexibility under the regulations as not supporting healthy meals.

As your Board, we are most proud of what unites SNA’s members – a dedication to ensuring all students receive healthy meals at school. SNA’s Board continues to advocate for strong federal nutrition standards, including limits on calories, fat, reasonable restrictions on sodium and mandates to offer a wide variety of fruits and vegetables.

But we have heard from an overwhelming majority of you and your colleagues who are struggling with a myriad of challenges, frustrations and financial hurdles – members who support SNA’s requests for commonsense flexibility under the most stringent regulations.

For this reason, SNA is inviting all members to express their successes and challenges, support and concerns directly to the SNA Board. To share your feedback, click here.

Sincerely, 
SNA Board of Directors

While SNA members have now been reprimanded and criticized for expressing divergent opinions through a sign-on letter, views held by SNA’s corporate sponsors seem to be welcome with open arms.

In a New York Times Magazine investigation into the politics behind the current school lunch battle, it is reported that SNA’s CEO Patricia Montague, invited Pat McCoy, vice president for sales at the $3 billion Schwan Food Company, to address the SNA members drafting the association’s legislative positions, along with the executive board. Schwan Food Company is a long-time SNA sponsor and manufactures about 70 percent of the pizza sold in U.S. schools.  Reporter Nick Confessore gives details about that March 2014 meeting:

McCoy proposed that the best way for the lunch ladies to get what they wanted was to use the appropriations committee to force the administration’s hand. “You know, it’s not just for industry, it’s for themembers,” McCoy said, according to one person who attended. “The members are speaking out and wanting relief.”

McCoy’s suggestion – which greatly benefitted Schwan as it would sell more pizza if nutrition standards were relaxed or waived – was ultimately adopted. The SNA proceeded to use the appropriations committee as a vehicle to try to roll back the nutrition standards – the very action that the recent member sign-on letter is protesting.

In stark contrast, SNA members who support the sign-on letter are having no such luck having their voices heard. The open letter asks the organization to “identify practical and long-term solutions that serve both the needs of school districts and the health of our schoolchildren,” rather than legislatively mandated waivers and rollbacks at the expense of our children’s health. But the SNA has made it clear they aim to shut down the opposition effort.

Something is terribly amiss with the SNA leadership when a reasonable, respectful, member-driven request is quashed without even a discussion, while corporate sponsors are allowed to propose the association’s legislative positions. I strongly urge supportive SNA members to sign on to the open letter and ignore the intimidation tactics. The health of America’s schoolchildren, and the reputation of your organization, depends on it.

This post first appeared on The Hill