Q & A Answering your questions about SNA’s position on changes to school meal pattern requirements. Unless you live a media-free lifestyle, it would be pretty difficult to ignore all the hullabaloo about school lunch being reported in the news in recent weeks. It’s possible that by the time you crack open this edition of School Nutrition, the urgency of the issue will have abated—or not. Certainly, as the magazine was going to press at the end of May, the “volume” was cranked pretty high, so we’d like to take this opportunity to cut through the noise and calmly answer some of the questions our readers are likely to have about SNA’s advocacy efforts, the response to them—and the role you can play in going forward. Q: What’s going on in Congress? A: As most readers know, new nutrition standards for school meals established through the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) have presented some significant operational challenges to many school districts across the United States since the initial rules were implemented in SY 2012-13. While the impracticality of a few of the meal pattern requirements has been addressed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) through actions such as the waiver of the grains/proteins maximum, many operators continue to struggle. With more stringent standards set to go into effect in SY 2014-15, SNA’s leadership did not believe that USDA could be relied upon to offer timely regulatory relief to its members, and felt that legislative action was the best course to pursue. Appropriations bills being reviewed (at press time) in both the House and Senate include provisions related to school meal programs. Q: Why now? Why don’t we just wait until next year’s Reauthorization? A: SNA is mindful that waiting to use the Reauthorization process to legislate this change could take some time. Consider that the last Child Nutrition Reauthorization was delayed a full year. That bill, the HHFKA, was not signed until late in 2010; USDA did not produce proposed regulations related to nutrition standards until January 2012 and rules for several other HHFKA provisions are still being written. If SNA waits to address problems until Reauthorization 2015, it could effectively be another five to six years before districts see some relief. SNA members—and the students you serve—simply don’t have the luxury of waiting that long. USDA’s own national participation data, released in May 2014, confirm that student participation has decreased by more than one million students per day. This reduced participation means that districts are losing money—on top of the increased costs associated with increased fruit/vegetable portions and more-expensive items developed to comply with whole grains and sodium requirements. Q: So, has SNA asked for a complete “roll-back” of nutrition regulations? A: Absolutely not! In fact, we continue to support the overall goals of the HHFKA. SNA called on Congress to: • Retain the current requirement that 50% of grains offered for reimbursable school lunches and breakfasts be whole grain-rich, rather than further increasing the requirement to 100%. • Retain the July 1, 2014 Target 1 sodium levels and suspend implementation of further sodium levels unless and until scientific research supports such reductions for children. • Eliminate the requirement that students must take a fruit or vegetable as part of a reimbursable breakfast and/or lunch. • Require USDA to allow any food item permitted to be served as part of a reimbursable meal to be sold at any time as a “competitive food,” in the acknowledgement that if a food is nutritious enough to meet strict school meal standards it is nutritious enough to be sold as a competitive food. Essentially, we want to push the pause button on the aggressive implementation timeline that requires schools, industry—and kids—to adopt extreme dietary changes well before that cultural shift has even begun in other segments of retail and foodservice. SNA is asking for a little time and flexibility to allow its members, vendors, customers and even nutrition science to catch up. Q: My district hasn’t suffered at all in either participation or budget since implementing the new rules. If we can do it, why can’t other districts? A: Congratulations—and keep up the good work! As noted earlier, SNA fully supports the goals of the HHFKA and the need to update the long outdated meal pattern requirements, and we applaud every success story from districts making meaningful and sustainable changes. But we all know that there is no cookie-cutter approach to school nutrition operations, and many factors vary from one community to another. From free/reduced-price disparity to geography-based procurement limitations to negotiated labor agreements— and everything in between— districts face distinctly different challenges in the successful and efficient implementation of the new rules. Q: But USDA has said that a vast majority of school districts are already in compliance with the new rules, earning their 6-cent certification in meeting the new standards. So, why is there still a call for flexibility? A: It’s terrific to hear that so many school districts met this threshold and are getting a much-needed increase in the reimbursement rate. But that statistic only tells part of the story. First, remember that districts were certified based on standards that were in effect at the time of certification. This does not take into account the second-level standards for sodium, whole grain-rich grains and fruit portions at breakfast that are set to go into effect next month. Also, many school food authorities that earned their certification have seen participation rates drop, food costs increase and the six cents be completely insufficient in filling the financial gap. They’ve been compelled to turn to the education budget to make up shortfalls. Be sure to check out “Myth Vs. Fact on Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act School Meals Implementation,” SNA’s response to some of the misinformation being disseminated on this issue; you can find it online at www.schoolnutrition.org/mythvsfact. Q: Wow—clearly, then, this can have an effect on the whole district! Is anyone else speaking up about this issue? A: As a matter of fact, they are! Both the Council of Great City Schools and the National School Boards Association have written to Congress with letters of support. Other education associations also share our concerns. Q: So, if we’re not looking to “gut the program,” and simply are seeking some practical, reasonable flexibility, why is the Administration so harsh in its public opposition? It feels like they are trying to turn this into some kind of battle. A: It’s very disappointing to SNA leadership to see our reasonable concerns be cast as a partisan political battle. Be assured that SNA wants to work with its longstanding partners at USDA—after all, we share the same goals! We reached out to Secretary Vilsack and other high-level USDA officials earlier in the spring to seek an in-person meeting about how we can work to reframe the discussion in a positive way, but have yet to hear back at press time. Q: Some of the news reports also have been saying terrible things about SNA and its members. A: It’s very frustrating and demoralizing when the media contributes to the spread of misinformation and doesn’t offer both viewpoints of a contested issue. We are gratified by those media outlets whose reporting has accurately reflected our positions. And certainly SNA is working very hard to correct misperceptions through our inhouse team and our fantastic Spokesperson Network of SNA members. Among the latest (at press time) efforts was a dynamic media call featuring several directors from all across the country explaining the very real struggles they have faced. These stories from “the frontlines” were heard by reporters from the Associated Press, The Washington Post, Politico, PBS Newshour, CQ Roll Call, plus several trade publications and representatives of other advocacy groups. Q: I’m not an SNA spokesperson, but is there something I can do to help address the negative media attention? A: Absolutely! First, we ask that you start by sending SNA your own stories about the challenges (and successes) you’ve encountered in the last two years. Hard data about costs and participation are particularly helpful. We will continue to compile these to use in answering media questions, as well as in our legislative advocacy efforts. Contact Nichole Westin at email@example.com. Although the school year is winding down, make a point to invite the media to your cafeteria now—or when back-to-school season ramps up—to show off how well you are doing, as well as the struggles you continue to face. Above all, promote your long record of serving healthy meals to the children in your community. Q: And what about helping to get more support for the bills in Congress? A: It’s hard to guess what stage the Appropriations bills will be at by the time you get this magazine. Regardless, please stay informed. Bookmark School Nutrition.org for regular news updates. Check your e-mail for SNA Action Alerts. Subscribe to Tuesday Morning, the weekly e-newsletter that covers the most recent happenings in federal and state policy and legislation. (Visit www.schoolnutrition.org/tuesdaymorning to subscribe.) Most important, keep writing to your individual legislators. If they voted to support SNA’s four requests, thank them. If they didn’t, ask them to reconsider their position for future action and tell them why they should. Either way, be sure to invite them to visit your cafeteria to see firsthand the incredible job that you do under extraordinary circumstances. Check page 100 for details about coordinating such a legislative cafeteria site visit—and getting entered into a special sweepstakes for your efforts! Above all, hang in there and know that your Association is doing all it can to support you and your efforts to serve America’s children. WHAT CAN YOU DO? • Send us your stories about he challenges (and successes) you’ve encountered. • Make a point to invite the media to your cafeteria. • Promote your long record of serving healthy meals to the children in your community.
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