Marshall L. Matz 0000-00-00 00:00:00
Election Day Looking ahead to and beyond November 6, 2012. What can we do to ensure support for school nutrition programs? With America’s obesity epidemic and its consequences increasingly being recognized as a genuine national crisis, legislative and regulatory action related to child nutrition in recent years has been almost wholly focused on nutrition standards. As School Nutrition readers know well, two examples of this attention are the new meal patterns for school meals (updated for the first time in more than a decade and released by the government last January) and the provision in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA) that extended the Secretary of Agriculture’s authority to regulate all foods and beverages sold in schools. The obesity epidemic is indeed quite serious, and there is no question that schools—and school meal programs—must be a part of the solution. But there’s also no debate that the challenges that school nutrition professionals face to meet their burden of that solution is significantly more difficult than those faced by retailers, commercial restaurants and parents preparing meals at home. It is going to take time and flexibility to make this transition work, not to mention some training, technical assistance—and funding. HHFKA attempted to mitigate the financial burden of the requirements by providing an extra six cents for each meal served in compliance with the new regulations, effective October 1, 2012. At the moment, the key issue is how to access this extra six cents with as little administrative burden as possible. Suffering the Squeeze Play That’s where we are. Where are we going? What will the outcomes of the upcoming national election mean to SNA’s legislative priorities? Throughout the next couple of months, attention in Washington will be focused on the election. But as soon as the results are in, the focus will quickly turn to the exploding deficit—no matter which party is in power in state houses, governors’ mansions, Congress or the White House. School nutrition professionals and their allies will have to stay vigilant. It will take all of our political energy to keep the extra cents, the entitlement status of our programs and funding for the “paying” child. Regardless of the outcome of the election, it is clear that the president and Congress will need to take steps to reduce our nation’s budget deficit and national debt. All programs, including child nutrition, will be expected to prove (again) their worth and justify their continuation. We cannot falter in reeducating our current supporters and in identifying new advocates on Capitol Hill. We need to begin right away, and not let up throughout the fall, winter and well into next spring. At the end of July, the total public national debt was approximately $15.9 trillion dollars. Consider that it took our nation nearly 200 years—from the time of George Washington to the time of Ronald Reagan—for the debt to reach just $1 trillion. Last summer, President Obama and Congress negotiated an agreement that could result in at least $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction by 2013, if the Congress acts on the compromise plan before the end of this year. If not, on January 3, 2013, a “sequestration”— automatic reductions of 7% to 9% on certain spending programs—will go into effect to ensure the $1.2 trillion total is met. Child nutrition programs, funded at roughly $19 billion, are exempt from this particular automatic “sequestration” process, as is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known to most people as Food Stamps. In comparison, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is not protected from automatic cuts. So we cannot take it for granted that school-based child nutrition programs will continue to be exempt from future budget cuts, particularly the new six-cent reimbursement increase, which is tied to the meal pattern regulation. It should be no surprise that elected officials are, rightly, looking for ways to reduce costs and control expenditures. Everyone is seeking ways to control waste, fraud and abuse. But some recent proposals in Congress go beyond that. For example, two bills in the House of Representatives contained provisions that would limit states’ ability to coordinate the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) and SNAP benefits. This limitation would reduce SNAP benefits for some families, and, according to the Congressional Budget Office, would result in 280,000 children losing automatic eligibility for school lunch and breakfast programs. The Senate, so far, has rejected this approach. But it should be a warning sign that the additional six-cent reimbursement could be in jeopardy when Congress hunts for other spending cuts. According to The Washington Post on July 23, “The ranks of America’s poor are on track to climb to levels unseen in nearly half a century, erasing gains from the war on poverty in the 1960s amid a weak economy and fraying government safety net.” The article went on to project that the official poverty rate would climb as high as 15.7%— even more modest projections place it at the highest level since 1965. As you know so well, vast numbers of hard-working Americans have lost jobs, and many have not been able to find equal or any employment. You know, because you see their children lining up for free or reduced-price school meals. You also know it is vital that children have access to these meals, for their health and academic performance today—and for better economic capability throughout their lifetimes. That’s why we must prepare now to defend our programs, reengage longstanding champions and find new ones. Putting Politics Aside On November 6, 2012, Americans will vote for U.S. president, all 435 members of Congress and one-third of the Senate. Will Barack Obama win a second term, or will Mitt Romney become our 45th president? Many political pundits expect it to be very close. Every vote will count. No matter which candidate you support or oppose, please make the time and effort to cast your ballot this year. It is our special right and responsibility; one that is denied to many people across the globe. But there’s something else you can do between now and November 6. Make time to make the case for school nutrition with the candidates in your state and Congressional district. Invite your senators, members of Congress and state legislators—along with their challengers—to your school for a lunch or breakfast. (I suspect that President Obama and Governor Romney will find themselves at a school or two this fall.) Don’t be shy about extending invitations—they really do enjoy and value these cafeteria visits! It’s also one of the best ways to showcase what you do, how well you do it and how valuable a service this is to America’s children. But before you let that lawmaker get a media picture eating with the children (and they all love that photograph), arrange for a few minutes in his or her office or with staff to explain the operational, administrative and economic challenges of school meal programs. Let them see what you do. Let them see how school meals have improved. Show them the quality businesses that you run within the school and district. Make sure they know that not only are you a constituent, but an expert in your field, one they should rely upon for details about school food programs. Let them know that these programs are efficient and provide the most nutritious meal per food dollar spent. Don’t let them forget how important these programs are to every child served. Remind these lawmakers that hungry children can’t learn and illiterate adults cannot compete in the new global economy. You cannot say this often enough: School lunch is about national defense, health and international competition! Finally, make sure they realize that your school-based nutrition programs need leaders and champions, and that you hope they will join with others who have designed, improved and defended these programs since the passage of the National School Lunch Act in 1946. Thank you. Marshall Matz is SNA’s Washington counsel and a partner at OFW Law in Washington, D.C. Visit SchoolNutrition.org for regular updates.
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