The other day I saw Tom Colicchio retweet a story with the headline, “Why would school nutritionists oppose healthier meals,” and I’ve seen several others just like it. I haven’t met one school foodservice director who wants less healthy meals and I hate that this debate has gotten to this point.
I’m still not sure what the right answer is or if there even is one, but I’m pretty certain no one is pro-obesity. Every single school foodservice director I’ve met and talked to has stressed to me that they are dedicated to providing nutritious meals to their students. But this debate has become so politicized that we now have people in the national media painting foodservice professionals as anti-healthy and celebrities with half a million followers retweeting them. It’s become right vs. left and Republican vs. Democrat on the cable news shows.
I, too, am confused at the seeming split amongst the current leaders of SNA and the past presidents who have sided with the First Lady and the USDA. The vast majority of responses I’ve gotten to my last column have been universal in their support of delaying or tweaking the upcoming mandates of HHFKA. My informal conversations with foodservice directors, many highly respected publicly and some of the most innovative, have expressed concern over the more stringent standards around the corner. I think many have chosen to remain quiet rather than be painted as “opposing healthier meals.”
The fact is school nutrition has come a long way in the past decade and the meals being served to our kids right now are pretty healthy. Are they as nutritious as they could be? Probably not, but greasy pizza and French fries are not the standard fare at any school I’ve heard about. Are school meals nutritious enough? SNA and many directors believe yes, the USDA says no.
I don’t know enough to take a side, but I do know that no one is against healthy eating and it’s incredibly unfair to suggest that. One director I recently spoke with wanted the First Lady to start listing logs and nutritional fact sheets of all meals served in the White House and that Congress do the same with its cafeteria. It would be interesting to see if the meals they are eating would fit within the requirements mandated in our schools.
I wish the author of that original story on the website Food Politics, Michelle Obama and Tom Colicchio could speak to and ideally visit some of the school foodservice directors I’ve gotten to know. They are all incredibly passionate and doing some amazing things with limited resources. And some of them, the majority, I’d say, do oppose the increasing standards mandated by HHFKA and it’s not because they want to bring back the deep fryer and it’s not because they’re being bankrolled by the processed food industry. They really believe some of the latest requirements are too much, too fast; that suppliers haven’t had time to develop foods that meet the new mandates, including the USDA and the commodities it makes available; that decreased participation could further set back the gains recently made and threaten the financial viability of school foodservice operations and the already dedicated workforce keeping it going.
Is that right? I’m not sure, but I can assure you those directors aren’t fighting to pump their students full of soda, hot dogs and ice cream.