Dr. Marion Nestle of NYU recently posted a great contrast of “dueling infographics” related to an ongoing school nutrition debate – should schools be allowed to opt out of USDA school lunch nutrition standards? One infographic focused on student health and one focused on money. The School Nutrition Association (SNA) designed one; it wasn’t about health.
The SNA has been lobbying for Congress to ease up on school lunch nutrition standards, and in the process, drawn fire for its ties to the food and beverage industry. Many experts believe the SNA’s backpedaling stance on school meal standards is due to pressure from food and beverage companies that heavily fund it.
(The SNA’s business-like infographic – full of data on dollars and consumers, with nutrition information oddly missing – didn’t do much to change that image.)
I had a selfish interest in Dr. Nestle’s blog because I led 2 of the studies cited in the health-oriented graphic, which was designed by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Both studies found evidence that healthier school lunch standards can have a positive impact on student health, particularly among students who rely on school lunch programs.
Given that disclosure, you might think I’m writing to say, “Ignore that SNA garbage!” But I’m not.
The SNA’s graphic focuses on increases in food waste and declines in revenue, which are real problems that need to be acknowledged, analyzed, and addressed.
Admitting problems and admitting defeat are 2 different things, though.
There is nothing surprising about the fact that implementing healthier nutrition standards had negative side effects; virtually every policy in every sector in every society in every universe has a negative side effect. It doesn’t matter if the policy is designed to regulate school nutrition standards, apartment rents, minimum wages, or dress codes – there will be some downside. To me, in fact, the most frustrating part of public policy debates is when well-intentioned policy advocates ignore the downsides.
Fortunately, Michelle Obama and other school nutrition advocates have taken the opposite approach. They have highlighted the positive evidence, showcased schools that implemented new standards successfully, yet acknowledged the challenges and the need to address them.
They’ve been supported by 19 former SNA presidents, numerous health organizations, and active food service directors who have spoken out against the current SNA leaders. As Miguel Villareal, a Food Service Director in Novato, CA, put it, “We have to keep moving forward and work harder and smarter to change the culture of wellness in our schools and communities. No one ever said it would be easy.”
That’s the #1 difference between the two sides of the dueling infographics – the willingness, or lack thereof, to admit they’re both right. Advocates don’t deny the challenges of implementing healthier standards, but the SNA does not seem interested in evidence of health benefits. In the SNA’s public comments that I’ve observed (and I’ve been following them a lot for the past couple weeks), they’ve spent remarkably little time talking about student health.
It’s like they have something else on their mind.
(For an overview of the school lunch debate, read here.)
[Image Sources: Flickr/USDAgov, Under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0]
I am an Assistant Professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health, where I specialize in childhood obesity policy research and systems science. My research has been featured in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, NPR, CNN, FOX News, Wall Street Journal, and several other media outlets. This is my personal blog; views are my own.
You can follow me on Twitter at @DanTaber47, where I often tweet about obesity news, school nutrition, public transit, systems science, and occasionally random topics like Seattle sports, marathon training, or my latest off-the-beaten-path vacation destination (coming in July 2014 – Kyrgyzstan!!)