The 68th Annual National Conference of the School Nutrition Association (SNA) met in mid-July in Boston, Massachusetts, to further discuss the direction of national food policy.
Improved standards for school lunches have long been the pet project of First Lady Michelle Obama. Changes would require school cafeterias to offer more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, and less sugar and salt in government-subsidized meals. When school lunch requirements were first edited in 2012, the SNA was one of the first organizations to offer support, but now it is revising its stance on the new standards. Additionally, Congress is considering legislation to delay some of the reforms by one year, thanks to some heavy lobbying from the SNA, which cites expense as one reason to postpone.
The big question revolves around the motives of the SNA to first support and then reject the new, healthier (and this term is relative) guidelines. According to Helena Bottemiller Evich, a food and agriculture reporter for POLITICO Pro, one look at the vendor stage at last month’s SNA convention in Boston and the answer is pretty clear. With more than 400 industrial vendors hawking products tailored to the tastes of school children, the motive behind the prevention of this policy seems to be an issue of money: School lunches are a gold mine of opportunity for food manufacturers.
Although the school cafeteria was once an extension of the home kitchen, with hairnetted ladies stirring soups and baking bread, the modern cafeteria serves more children than ever before and is hamstrung by cost restrictions. No longer are fresh, homemade meals commonplace; instead, frozen, ready-made dishes and processed items purchased in bulk are defrosted, reheated and served to kids who, in truth, don’t know the difference.
Some of the new products unveiled at the convention include “Munchies Flamin’ Hot Snack Mix,” a snack by PepsiCo that fits in with the new USDA guidelines because of its low-fat and whole grain-laden ingredients list. Miniature packaged Kellogg’s sugary cereals were present, along with whole grain-rich pizza that, no matter the prefix, is still pizza.
“Whole grain-rich” is apparently the biggest buzzword in the school lunch food industry, as nearly anything—from a muffin to a cinnamon roll—can be dusted with whole wheat flour and called “good enough.”
Not all is lost, however. Recent innovation in food technology is not limited to chemical-laden processed foods, as several vendors proved. United Fresh highlighted a new refrigerated vending machine model that serves fresh fruits and vegetables in their pure, unadulterated state, while other produce vendors unapologetically offered samples of bell pepper strips and fresh greens to convention-goers.
And thankfully, the importance of fresh fruits and vegetables is a pillar of the new school lunch guidelines, along with the significant reduction in sugar. This will be a boon to childhood health, no matter what dietary—or political—perspective reigns supreme.
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For Paleo parents concerned about the state of their children’s school lunch programs, there are two options: First, take responsibility for the health of your own children and pack Paleo-compliant lunches and snacks. Emphasize the importance of healthy eating to the children around you, but make sure to remove stress and rule-keeping from the equation—a healthy mindset is just as important as a healthy body. Second, take part in the formation of your school district’s food policy. Although federally mandated guidelines are the basis for the school lunch program, school cafeterias are still under the jurisdiction of the school district. Join a committee or an action group to make positive change happen in your children’s schools.
Oh, and if you’re curious who the 2014 sponsors were, you can find a list here.