Big Food Dominates the School Nutrition Association’s Latest Conference

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If there’s still any doubt about where the School Nutrition Association’s (SNA) allegiances lie, their recent School Nutrition Industry Conference (SNIC) leaves no uncertainty.

The annual conference, which this year ran from January 11 through 13, is “where school nutrition directors and industry representatives [came] together to build successful partnerships to better serve the nation’s children,” according to the SNA’s website. But a review of the conference agenda, speakers, educational sessions and sponsors paint a far different picture — one of an overwhelmingly industry-driven event heavy on the promotion of food and beverage offerings from major processed food corporations.

That’s bound to happen when the SNA taps the food and beverage industry to financially sponsor a conference. Food behemoths Domino’s Pizza and Jennie-O Turkey Store were listed as $5000-plus sponsors of SNIC. Other Big Food corporations donating between $500 and $4,999 included ConAgra, Five Star, General Mills, Kellogg’s, Sara Lee, Barilla, Kikkoman, Land O’Lakes, PepsiCo, Rich Products and Schwan’s.

Politico’s Morning Ag described the conference as “an event to build partnerships and talk about how the Healthy Hunger-Free Act regulations are affecting ‘the business of school nutrition.’ ” Industry was also tapped to finance and bestow awards on SNA members for achievement in foodservice:

As the conference kicked off on Sunday, Basic American Foods, Schwan’s Food Service Inc. and Tyson Foods Inc. held a dinner reception at the swanky Omni Resort & Spa at Montelucia, in nearby Scottsdale, to honor their Foodservice Achievement Management Excellence (FAME) Award winners.

But even beyond giving out awards to SNA members, the food industry’s influence over conference sessions was alarming. While the SNA maintains on its website that it is “the national organization of school nutrition professionals committed to advancing the quality of school meal programs through education and advocacy,” the SNIC program was ridiculously top heavy with Big Food speakers and exhibits. In fact, two of the four keynote speakers were from major food corporations (the president of Cinnabon and former president of Coca-Cola, North America Foodservice); three of the nine education sessions featured speakers from large food corporations (Cinnabon, Rich Products and Coca-Cola). Exactly what these Big Food speakers (who represent companies producing highly processed treats, sweets and other low-nutrition items) could impart to advance the quality of school meals is a mystery.

SNIC also featured the curiously named “Thought Exchange Sessions” described as “exciting sessions [where] 20 companies will present ground-breaking products and services currently in development or that have been introduced to the K-12 foodservice segment in the last 12 months, designed to improve the success of your school nutrition operation.” It’s hard to imagine any exchange of ideas when major corporations are hell bent on promoting their products and increasing sales. The long list of Big Food exhibitors at these thought exchange sessions included Kellogg’s, Land O’Lakes, General Mills, Modelez, Advance Pierre Foods, Super Bakery, Bush Brothers, Pepsi and Rich Products.

In addition, 40 food industry companies displayed new products or services at SNIC’s two Tabletop Showcase events on January 12th including Campbell’s, ConAgra, Domino’s, Sara Lee, Schwan’s, Tasty Brands and Simplot. To say it would be impossible for SNA members to avoid food and drink marketing at this conference is an understatement.

To be fair, some informative sessions to help school food directors improve their operations both financially and nutritionally were on the SNIC agenda. However, even some of those had potential conflicts of interest. “Mapping Your Students’ Eating Experience,’ a pre-convention offering “to better assess and evaluate customer satisfaction for program enhancement,” allowed attendees to earn four continuing education credits. But the session speaker was a Rich Products Corporation manager — an odd choice. In another session, award-winning SNA school food directors presented on best practices in school food operations. Unfortunately, the FAME awards they won were sponsored and awarded by the food industry.

While there’s certainly nothing wrong with food industry participation and input — after all, this is billed as a School Nutrition Industry Conference — the overwhelming feel of this event seemed less about building partnerships to better serve the nation’s children and more about how SNA could help its sponsors increase their profits.

Of course, none of this is surprising, as the SNA has long been heavily criticized for being in bed with industry. They recently made it their long-term mission to weakenthe Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act school nutrition standards, which would result in fewer fruits, vegetables and whole grains on our children’s trays and more junk food in their bellies.

The SNA’s sorry love affair with Big Food and Beverage, and their deep pockets, is one of the sadder spectacles we’ve seen recently. Even sadder is that it continues, full steam ahead, at the expense of our children’s health.

This first appeared on The Hill.