By Nichole Westin, Director of State Legislative Affairs 2014-10-28 17:41:43
The Art of the State Big things can and do happen for school nutrition at the state level—and you can play a role in the outcome. When Rachel Valesano, RD, SNS, director of food and nutrition services for Owatonna (Minn.) Public Schools, began working in the school nutrition profession seven years ago, she knew very little about her community’s representatives to Minnesota’s state legislature. But that didn’t stop her when she was asked to serve on the Minnesota SNA Public Policy Committee. In fact, she says, “I got hooked right away. I knew I needed to be a voice for child nutrition.” In Minnesota, 2014 has been a bumper year for state legislation. Working with a state lobbyist it has on retainer, Minnesota SNA and its members helped pass legislation to eliminate the reduced-price category (and expand the free category to encompass those students)—becoming the second state in the nation to do so for all grades. The same legislation also provides funds for free breakfast for all kindergartners. While Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) set the policies, rules and regulations that participants in the federal nutrition programs must follow, state governments can—and do—set their own rules as well, as long as they do not conflict with or diminish federal standards. Throughout the country, state legislatures are taking a closer look at child nutrition programs with increasing frequency. It is not uncommon for trends established at the state level to expand nationally, as politicians rise from the state to the federal stage. If a lawmaker is an ally of child nutrition programs when working in your state, he or she likely will remain so in Washington, D.C. With reauthorization of the federal child nutrition programs coming up every five to six years, advocacy efforts at the state level are almost certain to have some kind of a trickle-up impact. In recent months, state legislatures looked at all sorts of child nutrition-related issues, including expanding Breakfast After the Bell initiatives, addressing state funding for community eligibility, supporting farm to school programs and more. Whether you are a cook, a server, a manager, a director or something in between, you can play a role in shaping the state policy that impacts your school’s or district’s programs. Advocacy is simpler than you might think. Building the Relationship The first step is knowing who is working for you in your state government! Take a little Internet time to identify the key players. You may be familiar with those working in your state agency, but what about the governor’s office? The state senate and house or assembly? Do you know the names of the key committee members? Do you know the name of the lawmaker representing your district? Read online bios—how long have these state-level movers and shakers been serving, what are their areas of expertise, what are their political party affiliations? Committing to doing a little research of this nature is helpful toward your next critical step: developing relationships. Making that first contact with a state legislator might seem intimidating, but it’s as easy as sending a brief introductory email that tells a little bit about who you are and how your school meals program benefits students in his or her district. “It’s just the simple things—sending them an email [about] the great things we are doing,” says Kim Elkins, SNS, director of child nutrition for Mead (Wash.) School District. “[State legislators] want to know what is happening in their schools.” When communicating with lawmakers at both the federal and state level, simply providing the facts, accompanied and emphasized by both hard numbers and personal stories, is the most effective way to share your message and make your case. Such stories can showcase your creativity and achievements or demonstrate areas of struggle where relief is needed. SNA and/or your state agency staff can help with providing data, but it’s the stories about your students or staff that have the most impact. In addition to telling a story, you want to focus on building relationships with lawmakers in such a way that you and your colleagues are seen as the go-to resource on school nutrition programs. Many, if not most, lawmakers don’t fully understand the nuances of what it takes to implement school meal programs, and educating them on what your daily life is like is truly valuable. Remember, they need to govern on a staggering number and variety of issues and simply can’t be experts about everything. “It’s our job to educate them, [as well as] our superintendents, PTAs and parents about what we do,” asserts Elkins. Doug Davis, SNS, director, Burlington (Vt.) School Food Project, and a member of SNA’s Public Policy and Legislation Committee, also knows the value of making lasting connections with lawmakers. “Sooner or later,” he notes, we will get someone who sees feeding kids as essential—and they will help carry the water.” Many state advocacy teams use cafeteria site visit invitations, “breakfast in the office” activities and face-to-face meetings as approaches for keeping legislators in the loop about the effects of changes to school nutrition programs. In Washington State, for example, some SNA members found it effective to schedule short meetings with state representatives during a recent legislative session. Sometimes these were as brief and informal as 15 minutes at a local coffee shop. The state advocacy team also makes a point to meet with every newly elected member of the legislature. If this sounds intimidating, Elkins reminds us that even elected officials “are just people.” What’s Your Problem? Relationship building takes time and effort, but it’s worth the investment of both to have those individuals who are responsible for setting policy understand the realities of child nutrition operations, trust SNA members as experts and be willing to help toward mutual goals. In its truest form, legislation is meant to help alleviate problems and provide solutions. So when it comes to both the unique needs of your school nutrition operation, as well as those of your colleagues throughout the state (and nation), what are some of the problems that need solutions or gaps that need filling? Streamlined paperwork to offer supper programs and summer feeding at more sites? Help to ensure your employees receive training on the use of EpiPens® to come to the aide of students with deadly food allergies? Are there ways the state legislature can help alleviate ever-tightening financial pressures? Sometimes the solution isn’t an actual piece of legislation. Instead, the relationships you cultivate in state government can become a means to bringing interested parties together to collaborate. For example, the Maine SNA was invited to participate in a taskforce on childhood hunger assembled by Maine Senate President Justin Alfond, reports Ronald Adams, SNS, foodservice director for Portland (Maine) Schools and policy chair for Maine SNA. Over the past year, the group hosted informational meetings with various stakeholder groups, including the principals association, teachers union, school board association, food distributors, foundations, hunger relief organizations and others. The taskforce meetings are expected to culminate in a three-year plan designed to expand access to school breakfast, lunch, supper and summer meals across the state, says Adams. By participating in the taskforce and providing unique insights, Maine SNA will remain a voice on the issue, which would be critical should any legislation bubble up in the wake of the taskforce’s findings. A Marathon, Not a Sprint Policy textbooks tend to assert that there are three elements critical to “opening a policy window” for the passage of legislation: problem, policy and politics. This is a wonky way of saying that moving good legislation takes time. Patience is a virtue when leading advocacy efforts at the state or national level. When developing your legislative strategies, take a look at what other states have done. Reach out through the SNA network to ask members in those states about the lessons they learned, what worked and what they might have done differently in hindsight. It is easier to replicate a model that has already worked versus creating a brand-new way. SNA’s Headquarters staff is happy to help connect members that have had successful campaigns with those interested in pursuing similar initiatives. One easy way to leverage your relationship building with lawmakers to some kind of legislative activity is by asking for a resolution or declaration. It can be to honor school nutrition professionals on School Lunch Hero Day, officially recognize the importance of school meals during National School Lunch Week or publicly acknowledge the efforts of school meal programs in promoting locally grown produce with a Farm to School Day. These are easy concepts for legislators to understand, support and pass. It also places your name in the memories of state lawmakers, helping to lay the groundwork for more complicated bills in the future. When SNA of Vermont and its advocacy partners, including Hunger-Free Vermont, launched an initiative to find financial support to underwrite the costs of reduced-price lunches for eligible families, they knew this was a goal that wouldn’t be reached overnight— and that it would require steady pressure. But “Just because it’s hard, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be asking for it,” notes Davis. In fact, it took three years of continual education, telling the stories, providing the data, building relationships and partnering with various key stakeholders. In January 2013, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin included the cost of reduced-price lunch in his yearly budget. As this meant that the state legislature would have had to vote the measure out versus voting a new change in, the bill passed both chambers and was signed into law in time for the 2013-14 school year. Preventing Problematic Bills Sometimes you need legislative assistance—not for passing a bill, but to help stall or stop one that is sure to generate problems. A good example of this dilemma is when the Washington state legislature introduced a bill mandating breakfast-in-the-classroom service—without any additional funds to support the change. Most school nutrition operators certainly recognize the value of creative ways to boost breakfast participation, and they frequently seek support for alternative service approaches. But they also know that the one-method-fits-all strategy is rarely effective in school meal operations, especially without financial support for radical changes in menuing, labor, equipment and so on. Washington SNA determined it needed to oppose the bill. The state’s policy team successfully relied on the strong relationships it had nurtured with legislators and other stakeholder groups. “Once our allies knew the impact of the bill on our programs, they worked with us to stop the bill,” Elkins reports. “We shared the same goals [about breakfast participation], but we didn’t want to support legislation that would possibly damage our other programs.” Know Your Audience When developing your advocacy strategy for the year—or years—ahead, consider the political environment in your state. Some years will be easier than others to legislate change, especially if the same political party controls both the governor’s seat and the state legislature or there is longstanding bipartisan support for child nutrition issues. Other years will be more difficult. Is it an election year? Are there budget issues? Then it’s probably not a good time to promote changes that call for new funding. On the other hand, this can be a good occasion to gently remind candidates that you are a constituent, you have long-term concerns— and not only do you vote, but you can get out the vote with your state network. Are campaign speeches making reference to hunger or poverty? Be sure to pass along statistics about free/reduced-price eligibility in your community and the valuable safety net that your programs provide. If you have determined that the current political environment is somewhat contentious, your public policy team may opt to stay on the sidelines for a while. Or consider offering a budget-neutral idea. Even while SNA of Vermont’s policy team was gathering support to eliminate the reduced-price lunch category, they introduced budget-neutral resolutions in an effort to keep school nutrition at the forefront of the minds of legislators and allies. Or you may want to take a more passive approach, such as simply engaging with lawmakers and staff throughout the year without any type of “ask” on the line. Invite them to your cafeterias; visit them in their offices. Promote your achievements and acknowledge your challenges simply to remind them that you are an expert on these issues and ensure your name remains familiar. Keep reminding legislators of the state and local economic benefits from increased participation in school meal programs. What’s Next? The 2015 state legislative sessions will kick off in January, and it is already looking like it will be a busy year. Child nutrition advocates in Vermont are looking at how to provide universal free meals across the state. The Washington SNA policy team expects to be working on another breakfast bill—one that encourages and supports programs—as well as the reintroduction of legislation to provide equipment grants. In Minnesota, the focus will be on expanding universal breakfast beyond kindergarten and seeking further support for farm-to-school programs. Working closely with state legislators can have a lasting, positive impact on school nutrition programs. It may seem like a time-consuming effort in a busy period of many on-the-job demands, but the victories are always worth it. As Rachel Valesano puts it, “If we aren’t involved telling our story, someone else is—and it may not be the story we want told.” Nichole Westin is SNA’s director of state legislative affairs. Where Can You Turn for Help? Both Washington SNA and Minnesota SNA credit recent legislative victories to the expert assistance of their paid lobbyists. Although the work of volunteers is absolutely vital, most school nutrition professionals have more than full-time jobs. A lobbyist can play an essential role by taking meetings, following hearings and keeping in regular communication with the state leadership. But hiring a lobbyist simply isn’t feasible for all of SNA’s state affiliates. Does this mean you give up on state-level legislative advocacy? Of course not! SNA has increased the level of support its headquarters team offers on state policy issues. This includes updating how we track state legislation as it happens, as well as expanding the outreach on state policy developments. The SNA State Policy Resources section of SchoolNutrition.org features many handy tools, including guides on building grassroots campaigns, step-by-step policy development advice, smoothing policy bumps and numerous case studies. You’ll also find information on how your state affiliate should go about hiring a lobbyist or drafting its own state position paper. Don’t hesitate to contact SNA’s Director of State Legislative Affairs Nichole Westin for assistance in drafting testimony and talking points, receiving lobbying tips, customizing template letters to members of state legislative chambers and getting help with special projects/research. Email email@example.com or call (301) 686-3101.
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