‘School Nutrition Conference’ an education in mixed messaging

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June 27, 2013

Next month marks “the school nutrition event of the year” with the 67th annual national conference of the School Nutrition Association (SNA) in Kansas City. And the list of exhibitors who are scheduled to take part in this annual shindig includes just about everyone involved in the industry, ranging from the California Cling Peach Board and California Olive Committee to Clif bars and Bumble Bee Foods.

Also appearing at the conference will be representatives of Pepsico Foodservice, the Dr. Pepper/Snapple Group, and, as mentioned in a blog earlier this year, the Corn Refiners Association (CRA), the trade group representing manufacturers of high fructose corn syrup. So just how does “school nutrition” and HFCS go together, you might ask? Well we’re still wondering that too, so we called the School Nutrition Association to ask.

While SNA spokesperson Diane Pratt-Heavner told Food Identity Theft that she “can’t speak about it,” she said we could certainly call the CRA “about what it plans to discuss or make available at its exhibit booth,” adding, “my point is, we have exhibitors from every corner of the school nutrition industry.”

When pressed about how HFCS fits into “school nutrition” Pratt-Heavner said that anyone “working within the food service industry” is welcome to exhibit at the conference as long as any food “exhibited on the floor meets the requirements for the meal program,” which soda, for example, does not.

As our SNA spokesperson couldn’t provide any further insight into the Corn Refiners Association’s scheduled participation in the event (of which they were a “top” sponsor for 2008), we called another group with a presence at the affair this year, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM).

Now the PCRM, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., is a highly respected group, especially known for advocating good nutrition. What would they think about having the CRA as “neighbors” at the show?

We spoke with Susan Levin, a registered dietician and director of nutrition education for PCRM, who summed it up this way: “conferences make strange bedfellows.”

Competing against the ‘noise’ factor

Levin described the presence of such groups  as a “whole other problem.” “While we’re trying to save the world nutritionally, there is this other issue of marketing and money,” she said, adding “it’s disheartening…very political and financial, and it makes it harder for nonprofits to have a voice. … I know at other conferences, we are this teeny tiny little booth saying ‘eat healthy’ and we’re just drowned out by so much other noise.”

Some of that “other noise” will no doubt be coming from Pepsico Food Service, that, according to its sales information sheet will be pushing its “whole grain rich portfolio,” consisting of several of its big-name brands, such as Tostitos, Cheetos and Doritos – items typically referred to as “junk food” –  apparently reformulated with some whole grains to make them school-lunchroom worthy.

The Cheetos Fantastix! Chili Cheese, one of the “portfolio” items being pitched at the conference, may start out with whole corn meal, but goes downhill pretty fast from there. In addition to numerous  non-kid-friendly ingredients, such as artificial flavors, artificial colors, several sources of free glutamic acid (MSG), and several MSG-enhancing ingredients, it contains actual monosodium glutamate itself — an additive many experts have determined an especially dangerous ingredient where kids are concerned.

The PCRM exhibit, Levin told us, will be designed to “educate school nutrition professionals about the benefit of plant-based diets for school children..not just cheese pizza,” by exhibiting some tried and tested recipes that “kids really like.”

Another issue the PCRM will be focusing on at the SNA conference is the danger of processed meats, such as bacon, sausage and cold cuts, something Levin said “should not be an option in a school meal” due to a cancer risk that is described by the American Institute for Cancer Research as being so high, there is no “safe amount to consume.” As it turns out, several companies that market such items will have booths at the conference, among them Tyson Foods Inc. (which doesn’t just sell chicken, but also bacon, ham, franks and sausages, and “Del Slices,”) Cargill Food Service North America and Sara Lee Foodservice.

But Levin isn’t discouraged by the odd assortment of industry, trade groups, ‘good’ food and ‘bad’ food that will be vying for the attention of school nutritionists at the SNA conference. “I do think there’s hope,” she said, “people are just more plugged in and are getting a little more outraged and getting better at fighting.”