ANC18: Leaving Las Vegas


SNA's 2018 Annual National Conference (ANC)

“Bold” might be the best way to describe SNA’s 72nd Annual National Conference (ANC), which wrapped up late last week. ANC offered a dynamic mix of informative education sessions, great networking opportunities, inspiring stories, innovative product offerings and so such more. Combine these with the boldness of host city Las Vegas, and it was the recipe for a memorable event.

School nutrition professionals from all across the country gathered together for this unparalleled national experience with one common interest: feeding America’s children.

“Kids have to want to eat their meals,” said Brandon Lipps, USDA Acting Deputy Undersecretary, during his address to attendees at the Closing General Session on Thursday, July 11. “We have to make sure we have the right tools.”

This year, ANC boasted more than 3,500 registrants, all eager to find those tools and enhance their skills, selecting from among more than 150 education sessions on such trending topics as culinary skills, mobile feeding programs, employee communication, food allergies, school gardens and much, much more. The Exhibit Hall, with 903 booths from 373 vendors, is a one-stop shop for solutions to a variety of operational challenges.

For those who arrived in Glitter Gulch a bit early and registered ahead, special pre-conference workshops were a great way to take immediate advantage of ANC’s unmatched education opportunities. One sold-out session was a behind-the-scenes look at the kitchens at host hotel Mandalay Bay, featuring a tour of the kitchens, freezers, pantries and recycling center, along with plenty of Q&A time with staff about the challenges of running such a mammoth operation. Another popular workshop was a hands-on knife skills development course, led by three chefs, helping attendees learn a variety of cutting techniques and applying them to three veggie-packed recipes.

SNA's 2018 Annual National Conference (ANC)

Monday’s official conference start featured dozens of education sessions, the inspiring Red Carpet Awards Ceremony and the Opening General Session, featuring a conversation between SNA President Dr. Lynn Harvey and award-winning journalist Gayle King. A firm believer that people remember you for how you make them feel, King talked about the importance of kindness. She discussed how we all want the same thing: to love and be loved in return. Our differences,” she said, “are many but at the end of the day, we're all human.

In their wide-ranging conversation, King expressed how she wished she had a stronger relationship with food (especially during her childhood). That inspired her to try to instill a love of food into her two (now adult) children, but "nobody argued with Spaghetti-Os." She holds a great appreciation for school nutrition professionals and their ability to “train kids and their palates to like broccoli, carrots and apples,” she explained. King described some of her memorable interviews, offered humorous insights into her long, close friendship with Oprah Winfrey and ended the session by getting everyone on their feet to dance to Sixties-era hit, "Build Me Up Buttercup."

Tuesday and Wednesday were blurs of excitement. Like the rush of Black Friday shopping, the Exhibit Hall opened its doors on Tuesday morning with a throng of eager attendees. They trekked through every aisle, sampling some of the latest trending foods, talked with leading vendors, playing fun giveaways and collecting new product literature to bring home.

SNA's 2018 Annual National Conference (ANC)

Another Tuesday opening was the School Nutrition Research and Best Practices Showcase. Located in the Oceanside Ballroom Foyer on the second floor, this display of posters highlighted current research and successful practices happening in the field of school nutrition. Authors were available to answer questions, and guided attendees through a walking tour of the posters. Research topics include alternative breakfast, milk best practices, evaluating the impact of school gardens, an in-depth look at the Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Program and more.

Thursday arrived with mixed emotions. Attendees had to make final decisions about education sessions, finish visiting the last of the 900 Exhibit Hall booths and find good deals in SNA’s Pop Up shop of school nutrition-themed merchandise. It was the last day of the conference.

But there was also much inspiration on tap. Eyes became a bit misty during the morning’s Closing General Session, as both outgoing President Harvey and new President Gay Anderson, SNS, gave impassioned speeches, bookending the installation of the new SNA Board of Directors.

And it was the final keynote speech from Chef Jeff Henderson that roused the audience’s pride and passion for their roles as the first line of defense against childhood hunger—and potential criminality. A fierce advocate for abolishing the school-to-prison pipeline, Chef Jeff shared how hunger, poverty and a lack of role models led him to drug dealing and then prison. The “blinders of poverty” kept him from visualizing his true potential during his youth. But that 10-year stint behind bars changed his life for the better.

SNA's 2018 Annual National Conference (ANC)

“I didn’t get arrested, but rescued from the streets,” Chef Jeff recounted to a packed house in the Mandalay Bay Ballroom. Prison provided him with the unlikely tools and mentors he needed to rework his life. Prison is where he learned to cook. Once his jailtime was served, Chef Jeff knew he needed to change his lifestyle. He found mentors among the black chef community and rebranded himself. He shaved his face and scalp, stopped lifting weights to become less formidable, changed his walk and purchased a top-end chef’s jacket. He also learned to smile.

His personal story has given Chef Jeff a unique platform to advocate for answers to the poverty epidemic and childhood hunger. “Poverty doesn’t discriminate. Childhood hunger doesn’t discriminate,” he said. “I was able to connect the dots why so many kids become criminalized: food.” Cafeteria staff play an important role in providing proper nutrition, mentorship and love. “We must plug the prison pipeline and a good way to start is through nutritional meals.”

The positive vibes of Chef Jeff’s presentation provided the perfect mood for the final professional hours of ANC, before the show-stopping Final Event: two exclusive performances of Michael Jackson ONE by Cirque du Soleil. Attendees thrilled to the dramatic acrobatics, eye-popping lighting effects and high impact of the troupe’s performances of 35 of the pop legend’s top hits.

On Friday morning, departures began in earnest. And while the thousands of school nutrition professionals and partners were leaving Las Vegas, they were ready to heed the words of 2018-19 SNA President Gay Anderson: “What happens in Vegas…can benefit your career.”

The excited ANC conversation doesn’t have to end just because the conference is over! Share all of your favorite conference moments with us on SNA’s Facebook page and @SchoolLunch on Twitter. Go to SNA’s Instagram and Flickr to see a photo journal of all the lively entertainment! Don’t forget to mark your calendars now for ANC 2019—join us in St. Louis July 14-16, 2019!

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