Reflections From the Legislative Trenches SNA’s PPL Committee members share insights about advocacy challenges. Successful legislative and regulatory advocacy requires action by every member of SNA. But there are some who shoulder a bit more of the burden. This month, School Nutrition asked the volunteers on SNA’s Public Policy & Legislation (PPL) Committee to introduce themselves and reflect on the role of volunteers in SNA’s grassroots advocacy efforts. Several members participated in an audio conference, while others submitted comments via e-mail. A transcript follows, with additional commentary found at www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinebonuscontent. What is it about child nutrition advocacy that prompted you to volunteer for PPL? Wendy Weyer, Chair: We all work within individual programs, and we accept the rules and regulations as “This is what we need to follow.” But as you work in this field longer, you start to question “why and how did we get here?” I wanted to get involved in a process that allowed me to understand our history but also provided an opportunity to work on shaping the future. Gary Vonck: What intrigues me most in being a part of PPL, and of the legislative process, is holding those [who write the policy] accountable … following the law as it was supposed to be followed—making sure we are true advocates for the kids and for programs that might suffer due to a regulation that is too far-reaching or not practical. Stephanie Taylor: What drew me to PPL was the sense that I might be able to make a difference…to help our colleagues and coworkers with our jobs on a daily basis. Dolores Sutterfield: I had been with the Arkansas PPL for six years, and I’ve always tried to let Arkansas know that we are only as strong as our voice—and we have to use our voice before we do anything. I’ve learned through SNA and being on the national committee that our voice is tremendous, when we [speak] as one voice together. Doug Davis: I have always enjoyed the legislative process. Also, coming from a small state (Vermont), I had already been working with my delegation, and felt that knowledge could benefit me on PPL. Ariane Maori Shanley: It was the aspect of being one of the many voices who bring child nutrition and hunger issues to the forefront. If we do not advocate for our programs and our profession, someone else will. What legacy are we leaving for the next generations? How is national PPL service different from the state level—or from your expectations? Sutterfield : Being on PPL is more work than I anticipated. But it is fun, and it has been very educational. I don’t think that anyone really knows how much work goes on behind the scenes. Taylor: It’s good to get involved at your state level, as an introduction to advocacy. The state of Georgia mirrors SNA, just as some of the other states do. We have a volunteer PPL chair and cochair and also a lobbyist. We draft an issue paper and have a similar legislative conference. [Even though it’s not national,] it is still intimidating at first, especially for our front-line workers who may [be visiting elected officials for the first time]. But I think once they’ve done it, it gives them a sense of pride and accomplishment to talk to those legislators and express those concerns and thank them for the support that they do give our programs. So, the state level is a good place to start. Marilyn Moody: One difference that I’ve felt is that when I go to D.C., my visit is highly regarded by our representatives there. They [recognize] that I’ve taken measures to get to D.C. that make my visit with them significant, because I stopped what I was doing and traveled at some cost to see them and share our concerns with them. I don’t feel that at the state level, [where] sometimes the reception I get is “Why are you coming to me about a federal program?” At the national level, they take time to see us, and I feel appreciated. We have their ear. Vonck: Marilyn makes a good point: At the state level, [lawmakers] wonder why we’re ‘bothering them’ about a federal program. It’s part of our job to make them understand why we’re bothering them. Davis: In a small state, change can happen more quickly—sometimes I get a bit frustrated with the snail’s pace of D.C. But on PPL, I have gotten to work with some of the most passionate, dedicated and educated people in our profession—so for that, the national experience has been much better. The workload is more intense than maybe I anticipated, but the quality of that work also exceeded my expectations. It is the hardest-working, most dedicated volunteer group I have ever worked with. Weyer: PPL has changed since I was first appointed, [particularly with] the change in [the style of] our new lobbying firm. [Serving on PPL has helped] me to understand the areas where compromise needs to happen. When we sit down together and start shaping the Position Paper, it feels really good to take ownership for the voice that we’re putting out there that will be carried through to LAC. We spend a lot of time debating what to put forward, regarding the issues and the right wording to use. So, not only must you take care to represent the interests of our diverse organization, but even the message crafting can be an involved process? Weyer: The message crafting can be the frustrating part—the hours spent on a single paragraph, making sure it’s being structured the right way, because you want to be clear and concise [and not be inaccurately critiqued]. Taylor: I didn’t realize how much went into developing that Position Paper and representing different perspectives across the country. For a while, when we are putting it together, we think that this is not ever going to happen—but then, when we see the finished product and how it really is a representation of school nutrition professionals across the country, then it’s a neat process to be a part of. There’s also the work that goes into LAC to put on a conference that is educational and meets all the expectations of our members; it’s quite a challenge. Moody: Now having worked on the committee [I realize] it’s a huge, expansive [effort] that also involves our lobbying firm and SNA staff. It takes all of us together— we’re part of a much larger cooperative effort than I had expected. Vonck: My first PPL meeting was drafting the Position Paper, and I was very impressed by the overwhelming dedication, specific passions and how serious and focused it was. There was always a resounding message of “What do our members want and need? What does industry need?” It’s been a very transparent process; very clear, with no hidden agendas. What’s your perception of the role of individual SNA members in our advocacy efforts? What obstacles do you see to individuals doing even more? Davis: Having spent far more time as an SNA member than a PPL member, I can say, for the most part, that our members are overwhelmed. [We] are a pretty strong lot, but many of us are just trying to keep one step ahead of the next deadline. Now, as a PPL member, it is so clear to me that the role of the individual member is vital. We have to find a way to get our message out to them, to [inspire them] to be more involved in the process. Maori Shanley: SNA has a very diverse membership, and getting everyone to take action is a challenge. For some, it’s a lack of in-depth understanding of the issues. Others are overwhelmed. Being intimidated is another obstacle. Vonck: I don’t think individual members realize how critical they are [to our success]. You look at the appropriations issue we’re dealing with right now and just how critical it is for each of SNA’s members to send a letter to their [U.S. representative and senators], expressing the importance of their support [of our concerns]. … I don’t know if it’s a self-esteem issue or a feeling of “I’m just me; what can I do?,” but the reality is that they need to understand that they play such a vital role. It doesn’t matter what your title is, it’s the fact that you can express your views to that Congress member and hold them accountable … [Members] need to look in that mirror and say, “I am going to make a difference.” Sutterfield: In this last three weeks, we’ve bombarded members with action alerts and phone calls. [Still,] we probably need to educate our membership about everything— including how to use the action alert button and other [seemingly] simple things. But they have been fantastic in Arkansas—all of them are jumpin’ and jivin’ right now! Moody: We try to encourage that grassroots effort. When a local official visits and sees firsthand what we do? I don’t think there’s anything better than “Cafeteria Site Visits 101” that SNA has produced to help local programs invite representatives and local officials or anyone to see what a good job we’re doing. [Legislative site visits also help our marketing efforts.] When the media shows an official enjoying a healthy, beautifully prepared school meal, it just adds to our professional appeal. Of course, it does mean that we have to make sure that our house is in order when we have those visits! Weyer: The fact that participation at LAC has remained high, even when we’re not in a Reauthorization year, shows the passion of our members and the fact that they’re part of this process. SNA must advocate on multiple fronts: with the administration, with Congress, with allies and with quasi-allies. What are your perceptions about the opportunities and obstacles of each? Sutterfield: One thing that has puzzled me the most in the last month is that “everyone” likes to talk about our programs or has suggestions for our programs—but they need to work in our programs to know our programs. I just wish that everyone was like my superintendent. He doesn’t walk in my shoes, but he knows every day what pair of shoes I have on. He’s very supportive, and he’s informed—and if he doesn’t know, he just comes to see me. We need to try to encourage people to do that when they don’t know our programs—to talk to someone who’s been there and done that. Vonck: The unfortunate part of dealing with the “noise” is when the spin distorts the facts. I’m thinking of the Administration saying that 90% of schools have gotten certification for their 6 cents—that tells everybody that all things are good out there. But really, it’s like when you’re talking about a fast car and you say “it’s green.” The certification is just one tiny element of this, but when they spin it to discredit those experts who are talking about the challenges and the facts [of the meal pattern requirements], that’s the most difficult thing for me. Weyer: One of the things we get up against is our own success. That 90% is a success, but it was based on the initial nutrition targets, and we’re still struggling financially to pay for the new requirements. But the message being spun is that we’re ready. Well, no. It’s hard, because what’s happening is that the bad press is being put out there. Now our positive efforts to show the community [our very real challenges] are being reversed on us [with the attempt to shame us into complying], when the reality is we’re trying to look out for the best for our kids. We’re trying to get the Administration to understand that we believe in the direction of the new meal pattern, but just like with any project, we need to reevaluate the timeline; that’s really the message we’re trying to communicate. Moody: I see it as more effective when our allies talk about what a good job we do, rather than us tooting our own horn. I know we need to toot our own horn, too, but it’s more impressive to our elected officials when it’s coming from someone else. So, strengthening those allied relationships is very important, but we deal with a lot of well-intentioned organizations that are grossly misinformed about how we operate. It’s a constant struggle to educate, educate, so that our allied organizations can be a strong voice for us. What is the most important thing that members can do right now, after reading this article? Davis: Identify your state legislative chair and reach out. Get on the e-mail list, re-read the Position Paper and see if it is still relevant to your day-to-day needs. Communicate with your PPL representative. Maori Shanley: Ask questions. Take action—encourage others to take action. Participate in outreach and educating others about child nutrition programs and SNA. Share the impact—good and bad—that the new regulations have on your program. Weyer: Reauthorization is right around the corner, so let’s learn from the past. It will be very important for members to voice their opinions about the changes that need to happen in the future. Stay engaged in the process, so we can look at how to bring about that flexibility and those administrative changes to make our programs run efficiently for the students that we’re feeding every day. Vonck: It’s the responsibility of each member to stay in tune with current information. One of the challenges is the misinformation that’s out there. It’s really important for our members to take the time to read what’s on the SNA website about SNA’s positions, so that they have the confidence to have discussions that educate the public and our legislators. Don’t go based solely on something someone has told you—have a very reputable source of information to stay consistent on the facts. We discredit ourselves by not being factually correct. Sutterfield: Always respond to action alerts! With one voice together, we can accomplish everything. Moody: Plan now to attend LAC in March. Let it be your first time. Taylor: Contact your state PPL committee chair for questions and clarifications. Sutterfield: Our members also need to know that our SNA staff, like [Staff Vice President of Child Nutrition & Policy] Cathy Schuchart and her team, are champions who are there to help us when we get into situations that we don’t know how to handle. They’re just a phone call away. They have more information than we ever dreamed; we just need to use those resources that are available to us. Moody: I’d amen that, too. BONUS WEB CONTENT What is the greatest misperception that SNA members have about the Association’s advocacy efforts or the role of the PPL Committee? Visit www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinebonuscontent to find out! SNA 2013-14 Public Policy & Legislation Committee • Wendy Weyer, SNS, Chair Regional Representatives • Lori Adkins, SNS, Mideast • Doug Davis, SNS, Northeast • Laura Farmer, SNS, Southeast • Margan Holloway, SNS, West • Ariane Maori Shanley, Northwest • Barb Mechura, Midwest • Dolores Sutterfi eld, Southwest • Stephanie Taylor, Southeast Section Representatives • Lynn Harvey, EdD, SNS, State Agency • Marilyn Moody, SNS, Major City District • Gary Vonck, Industry Board Advisors • Leah Schmidt, SNS • Julia Bauscher, SNS • Jean Ronnei, SNS Legislative Counsel • Peter Spanos • Craig Burkhardt • Richard Boykin Staff Advisors • Patricia Montague, CAE • Cathy Schuchart
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