2013 LAC Showcases Pragmatic Passion

March 8, 2013 – Bitter winds gusted across the nation’s capital just days after bitter words were exchanged (again) on Capitol Hill following yet another failure of bipartisan compromise regarding the nation’s debt woes. But at the J.W. Marriott, situated blocks between the Capitol and the White House, a record-breaking number of school nutrition professionals, industry partners and other advocates remained undeterred by either the forecasted snow nor the recent sequester. These 800+ attendees of the School Nutrition Association’s 41st Legislative Action Conference (LAC) were fired up and ready to make the most of a long history of bipartisan support for child nutrition.

Indeed, the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs were among the few to have been exempted from the sweeping sequestration budget cuts and support from both major political parties was evident with the pre-LAC announcement of a bipartisan bill introduced in the U.S. Senate. Senators John Hoeven (R-N.D.) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) introduced S. 427, the “Sensible School Lunch Act,” which would eliminate the weekly maximums for grains and meat/meat alternates established in the nutrition standards regulation published in January 2012. Although the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) had waived that requirement for the rest of SY 2012-13 and through 2013-14, SNA, in its 2013 Legislative Issue Paper, has requested permanent elimination of this provision. Addressing LAC attendees at the closing session on Wednesday, March 6, Sen. Hoeven remarked, “This is how it should work. This is a good example of how we can work together to get the job done.” The bill already has several other cosponsors from both parties.

The 41st LAC officially kicked off on Sunday, March 3, with a number of inspiring breakout sessions showcasing and sharing best practice innovations from districts of all sizes and demographics. From learning of the marketing tips in Minnesota to nutrition/physical education breaks in Kansas to new product sampling procedures in Florida, attendees could find any number of useful “nuggets” to take home and try out for themselves. After the breakouts, the agenda turned squarely to what operators, industry and other advocates needed to know about working with lawmakers in Washington.

NBC News Political Director and Chief White House Correspondent Chuck Todd conceded that the climate in Washington these days was not conducive to productivity. “I’m a little ashamed to get up and speak about the inability for Washington to get anything done in light of all that you get done every single day,” he noted. He equated the communications clashes between the dominant political parties to those discussed in popular relationship advice books: “Republicans are from Mars and Democrats are from Venus, and none of us here on Earth feel like they are listening to us.”

Todd went on to project his optimism for future budget battles, outline the likely transformative priorities for each major party in the years ahead and reflect on the lessons of history as our country labors to redefine itself for the future. “You’re feeding kids to do what? Training them to do what? We’re still struggling as a society to define what that is,” he remarked.

LAC is also an important occasion for dialogue between school nutrition advocates and representatives of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Food and Nutrition Services (FNS), which has oversight of the federal child nutrition programs. FNS representatives acknowledged and thanked school nutrition operators and industry for rising to some difficult challenges in meeting the new meal pattern requirements, emphasizing the importance of working together in partnership for America’s kids. “If you’re not successful at your job, then we’re not successful at USDA,” reiterated Dr. Janey Thornton, SNS, deputy under secretary.

Presentations about several related research studies will help to arm school nutrition professionals with the data they need to support a variety of initiatives and priorities, from expanding school breakfast service to upgrading outdated facilities and equipment. The annual Charge to the Hill was supported by real-world examples from industry and operators struggling with such issues as paid meal equity and unpaid meal charges. SNA’s Washington Counsel reminded attendees that the positions of the Legislative Issue Paper are “small enough and precise enough” that they are issues that members of Congress can solve.

Monday’s official program ended with a surprise visit from NFL greats Brian Mitchell, retired from the Washington Redskins, and Torrey Smith, of the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens. The football players expressed their appreciation and admiration for the work of school nutrition employees at all levels. “On behalf of all the students who act like they don’t care, know that you are appreciated,” lauded Smith. Mitchell urged attendees to own their expertise: “When you go to Capitol Hill, don’t you take ‘no’ for an answer. You put your foot down!”

Other conference highlights:

  • Hundreds helped to raise funds for the Global Child Nutrition Foundation at its annual “A Possible Dream” Gala. Arlene Mitchell was honored as the latest recipient of the Gene White Lifetime Achievement Award for Child Nutrition. Also honored were SNA’s 2012 Outstanding Director of the Year Sherri Knutson, SNS, and 2012 Industry Member of the Year Barbara Jirka, PhD, SNS.
  • Industry members enjoyed a special luncheon featuring insightful reflections from a panel of school nutrition directors and state agency directors. The panelists reviewed the ongoing challenges of meeting the new meal pattern provisions, as well as some of the positive consequences. “The new regs gave us a great platform for school meals, nutrition and wellness,” noted Elizabeth Wallace, SNS, director of food and nutrition services, Cherry Creek Schools, Englewood, Colo. And June Barrett, CNP program coordinator, Alabama Department of Education, thanked all of the vendors in the room for their “proactive approach to reformulating products.”
  • While a doom-and-gloom forecast for heavy snows sent some LAC attendees off to the airport for earlier flights back home, a special Capitol Hill Reception in the Cannon House Office Building was “packed.” Participants reported a “lovely networking” event with fellow attendees, Hill staff and some members of Congress. Among them, Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) addressed those assembled, expressing her interest in sponsoring the House version of the grains/meats maximums bill.
  • Although the federal government shut-down made in anticipation of significant snow accumulation meant much of D.C. was shut down as well, LAC attendees were grateful that Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) still were able to join Sen. Hoeven and offer reflections about the recent election and expectations for the 113th Congress. All the lawmakers made generous and sincere comments of appreciation for the great work of school nutrition professionals in schools across America and reiterated their support for pragmatic changes that benefit kids. “I will support any bill that focuses on healthy children,” said Fudge, noting that “a nation that ails its children, fails.” And Hoeven encouraged SNA members to continue to share their experiences and stories. “It makes such a big difference to hear from the experts,” he explained. “When you talk to your member of Congress, it matters!”
  • Sens. Hoeven and Pryor called a press conference on Wednesday to announce their sponsorship of the “Sensible School Lunch Act” bill and applaud SNA for its advocacy. “We’re working with a fabulous group,” credited Hoeven. “These are the people who are on the front lines across this nation, every single day, making sure that our children get the nutrition that they need.” SNA President Sandra Ford, SNS, was invited to speak at the event, and offered her appreciation for legislation that will “provide cafeterias the flexibility that they need to plan healthy menus that appeal to the students…. Under this bill, school menus will make sense again.” The rest of the SNA Executive Team, as well as delegations from North Dakota and Arkansas also were featured guests at the press conference.

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