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The Real Voice Behind the “Lunch Ladies”

Monday, June 16, 2014

In the ongoing campaign to get Congress to weaken federal requirements for healthier school lunches and snacks, the School Nutrition Association is trying to create the impression that it speaks for the nation’s “lunch ladies,” the hundreds of thousands of women and men who prepare and serve food to children in schools.

But the reality is that the association, which has allied itself with major food companies whose profits are threatened by the four-year old law requiring more nutritious school lunches, represents a small minority of school cafeteria workers and managers.

Two far larger groups that represent vastly more school lunch workers are doing the right thing and standing up for healthier lunches. They are the National Education Association and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which together represent 575,000 school food service employees – more than 10 times as many members as the School Nutrition Association claims to represent.

These two groups are strongly defending the improved school nutrition standards. In contrast to the School Nutrition Association, they are urging lawmakers to reject the provision in the House of Representatives’ agriculture appropriations bill that would allow non-complying schools to claim waivers exempting them from the requirements for a year.

In a letter to Congress last week, the National Education Association called on members to oppose the provision, saying its members believe that “proper nutrition is essential to child development and student success.”

The letter cited the example of Roselyn Green, an elementary school cafeteria bookkeeper in Florence, S.C., whose school is “serving more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in every meal, and fewer foods high in sodium and saturated fats, thanks to the new standards.”  The letter added that Ms. Green is one of the thousands of the Association’s members who have been “instrumental in helping their students make healthier food choices” as their schools implement the new nutrition standards.

In a similar letter, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees told legislators that it stands with 75,000 of its members who are school food service employees and strongly oppose the waivers.

“For many children, the meals they eat in school are the most nutritious meals they eat all week,” the Federation wrote. “This is also a critical time to set healthy eating patterns early and prevent childhood obesity, type II diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cancer and the enormous associated public health costs.”

The Federation’s letter quoted Linda Harbin, a cafeteria manager at a high school in Cerritos, Calif., who said that “kids are definitely eating more fruits and vegetables rather than taking and tossing them… We’ve had open houses, so the parents can sample what we serve for breakfast and lunch. The parents have been very impressed, and we’ve seen that our outreach to parents has encouraged more kids to eat our meals.  For sure, it takes some extra work to get the kids involved, but I think it’s made a big difference.”

The School Nutrition Association, meanwhile, has chosen to turn its back on improved nutritional standards for children and, as EWG reported last week, spoken more strongly for the interests of big food companies such as PepsiCo, ConAgra Foods, Schwan’s and Domino’s Pizza than for the school nutrition and cafeteria employees it claims to represent.

If you want to know how “lunch ladies” across the country really feel about the improved school nutrition standards, listen to the National Education Association and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. They make it clear that the top priority of their members is the health and wellbeing of the children they serve. 

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