Why Some Nutrition Lobbyists Are Confused About Nutrition

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Given the complicated nature of the political web that controls school meal programs (budgets, facilities, taste-preferences), we can at least take solace in the fact that we have a solid understanding of nutrition, right?

Unfortunately, looking to the news over the last few weeks, it seems that the idea of “nutritious” can be very different depending on who is footing the bill.

Earlier in July, the School Nutrition Association (SNA) convention received heightened attention on account of the group’s attempts to halt the Healthy and Hunger Free Kids Acts (HHFKA). One of the most obvious take-homes from the reporting was the profound influence that big food companies have over the SNA, and subsequently school nutrition. In a Time opinion piece Michele R Simon (of EatDrinkPolitics) discussed how our relatively new USDA school nutrition standards have led Big Food to create “school compliant” versions of their junk (such as the “Smart Slice”) which are hardly a nutritious option:

But is it really better now that ‘reduced fat’ Cheetos have replaced regular in schools? Can parents rest easier knowing their kids are buying “whole grain” Pop-Tarts still containing 15 grams of sugar? Can USDA really claim that the “low sugar” line of Gatorade products (called G2) is significantly superior nutritionally, given that they contain artificial sweeteners and dyes?”

Of course not! To learn a little more about the SNA conference, check out Helena Bottemiller Evich’s (of Politico) video. “Good nutrition” takes a new meaning when it is used to describe junk food, doesn’t it?

The SNA made the news again in late July. Kiera Butler of Mother Jones reported on a recent academic study designed to understand student opinions about the HHFKA. Overwhelmingly, healthier options in school cafeterias have been a hit, particularly for underserved populations. And yet...and yet….the SNA was not too keen on this study, as Butler explains:

Half of those surveyed said that the students "complained about the meals at first," but 70 percent said that the students now like the new lunches. . . . .respondents from schools with a high percentage of poor students—those with at least two-thirds eligible for free or reduced-price meals—were especially positive about the new standards. . . ."

SNA's response? To issue a statement declaring that "these reported perceptions about school meals do not reflect reality."

Strange that a school nutrition lobby group would want to discredit a study which found that kids like nutritious food. To shed a little light on this, consider Kristina Fiore’s recent MedPage article which explained a similar situation with the American Society of Nutritionists (ASN) and their own version of a scientific study in which they touted the importance and healthfulness of “processed” foods. What?! Fiore goes on to explain that the definition they used in their study was extremely wide and included minimally processed foods such as dried fruit or baby carrots. It certainly seems problematic to lump frozen veggies together with something like Doritos Loaded and then tell the American public that both things are healthy options. One possible explanation for the ASN’s stance, as explained by Dr. Connie Weaver, is the outside influence of Big Food:

Weaver said the statement was not directly supported by any food industry groups, but authors reported relationships with companies such as Nestle, ConAgra, Hershey, OceanSpray, and the Dairy Research Institute, and ASN's supporters have included companies like McDonald's, Monsanto, Mars, Kraft, and Kellogg.”

Whether via school lunches or the supermarket aisles, these Big Food businesses have a lot of money to throw into advertising and lobbying, and from a business perspective it makes sense for them to try to influence perceptions about health and nutrition. However, it is shameful that what their money ultimately ends up buying is unhealthy children and adults in our country.

To offer us some hope, though, we note that there are powerful forces out there working to push things in the opposite direction. The USDA just announced that it is starting a pilot program which will allow states flexibility with their USDA entitlement dollars to spend it on local and minimally processed foods. If the program goes well in eight states, it is likely that it will expand to others.

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