By Cathy Schuchart and Sherri Lehman 2015-07-29 11:55:42
Cruising Right Along SNA is keeping the pedal to the metal in pursuit of your top legislative priorities. Almost 18 months ago, School Nutrition launched this column, marking SNA’s official first steps on the “Road to Reauthorization.” It’s been a quite a trip, without delay or detour—we’ve barely slowed down and have even bypassed all the rest areas! Now, our destination is almost in sight. The federal child nutrition programs are set to expire at the end of September. As this issue of the magazine went to press, SNA was waiting to see if an official Reauthorization bill would be introduced in Congress—or whether we would be more likely to see the process continue, probably through the 2016 national elections. But we’re jumping ahead—let’s catch you up on the highlights of the trip since March’s 43rd annual Legislative Action Conference (LAC). Road Trip At LAC 2015, SNA shifted its Reauthorization advocacy efforts into high gear! A record-high 929 school nutrition professionals, allies and partners attended the event. Representing a collective enrollment of 8.7 million students, they “charged” Capitol Hill, ready to discuss the priorities of the 2015 Legislative Position Paper with their individual representatives in the House and Senate. [Editors’ Note: We like to think they were especially “fueled up” and ready to go after reading SN’s February issue, chock-full of articles about advocacy!] And charge they did! In the space of just a few days, state delegations from Alaska to Florida visited a whopping 390 congressional offices, meeting personally with lawmakers and/or legislative staff members. We can’t stress enough the value of this type of member outreach. The opportunity to look the legislator in the eye, shake his or her hand and tell your story in the simple but effective manner you all do carries so much significance. While SNA’s legislative team works on your behalf in Washington all year long, lawmakers are most compelled when they hear from their constituents. We know that many of you continue efforts to connect through emails, letters and cafeteria site invitations. Keep up the great work! In the meantime, SNA is supporting and supplementing your advocacy in a variety of ways. We’ve hosted several special events designed to ensure that key Hill staff on the respective House and Senate authorizing committees are hearing from members like you. For example, building on last fall’s cafeteria site visit in Montgomery County, Md., we’ve hosted three “Hill briefings”: one last October (at which 75 staffers attended) and two in June for some 60+ staffers. In June, congressional staff had two opportunities to hear from a panel of diverse representatives, including Dr. Lynn Harvey, RDN, SNS, chief of School Nutrition Services for North Carolina’s Department of Public Instruction (and now newly installed SNA Vice President). Harvey explained that despite an increase in student enrollment, her state has experienced a 5% decline in student participation at lunch due to the new nutrition standards. Food costs and plate waste are both up significantly, with schools having less resources to manage the losses, as a la carte revenue down a collective $20 million since the Smart Snacks implementation. The panelists, which included leading school directors from California, Kentucky, Nebraska, New York and Ohio, also made a point to cite the many creative ways they and their peers nationwide are working to overcome such challenges, such as employing new culinary and marketing efforts. But they detailed how the funding losses are dampening further creativity. “We are extremely innovative and are offering sushi, made-to-order paninis, rice bowls, tacos and burritos, prepared fresh right in front of the students,” noted Chris Burkhardt, director of Child Nutrition and Wellness, Lakota (Ohio) Local School District. “Despite these efforts, lunch participation under the new standards is down 15%. We are serving 100,000 fewer meals but costs are up significantly. We have no funding left to invest in further improvements and our program is ineligible for federal equipment grants or other assistance available to districts with higher free and reduced-price participation,” he explained. “With all the changes, my paying students are walking away from the program. It’s sad to see how these regulations are turning school lunch into a program that just serves free or reduced-price eligible students,” lamented Debbie Beauvais, RD, SNS, district supervisor of School Nutrition, Gates Chili, East Rochester District and East Irondequoit School District in New York. These are the type of stories that SNA members in every community across the country need to share with their congressional representatives in Washington. In addition to hosting these special events, we have worn out our pedometers this spring by visiting the Capitol Hill office of each and every member of Congress. That’s 535 U.S. senators and representatives! At each, we left a one-page summary of SNA’s key legislative priorities and exchanged business cards. These in-person visits go the extra mile (literally!) beyond email action alerts. While the members of the respective authorizing committees drive forward the legislation that affects the school nutrition programs, at some point all 435 members of Congress and 100 senators will vote on the final bill. We want to be sure that those who are not actively engaged in our issues are introduced to them now. Travel Companions We really need to give credit to the leaders of the respective authorizing committees in Congress for their willingness to “get ‘er done,” when it comes to Child Nutrition Reauthorization. Even more important, we’ve noted a real willingness by lawmakers and their staff to hear, to listen and to learn. On the Senate side, new Agriculture Chair Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) has stated publicly his commitment to producing a bipartisan bill with Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). Sen. Roberts has proven especially thoughtful in ensuring he fully understands the issues facing SNA members. He has made several personal visits to school cafeterias across Kansas (special kudos to School Nutrition Association of Kansas Public Policy/Legislation Committee Chair Cindy Jones for helping to coordinate these) in an effort to see for himself how school nutrition operations are challenged and all they are doing to persevere and serve healthy, appetizing school meals. On the House side, Education and the Workforce Committee Chair John Kline (R-Minn.) has been equally open to learning all he can about the issues, with the intention of producing a Reauthorization bill by the end of September. At the June hearing on “Child Nutrition Assistance: Are Federal Rules and Regulations Serving the Best Interests of Schools and Families?” Rep. Kline made an opening statement that demonstrated his awareness. “What we have learned from students, parents, school nutrition professionals, government watchdogs, other key stakeholders and yes, even the Department of Agriculture, is that the latest reauthorization of federal child nutrition laws is the most far-reaching and costliest in a generation. … These regulations have created an environment where students are not getting the nourishment they need, and food and taxpayer dollars wind up in the trashcan.” Rep. Kline went on to note that he saw these challenges firsthand during a visit to the Prior Lake School District in Savage, Minn. “Students described smaller portion sizes and limited options that left [them] hungry and more likely to buy junk food. After students petitioned the school board, Prior Lake has decided to drop out of the school meals program next school year,” he reported. Kline concluded his remarks by citing a quote from previous testimony given by a representative of Share Our Strength, who advocated “’to remove bureaucratic barriers and create efficiencies that will allow us to reach those kids who currently go without.’ I look forward to discussing how we can achieve just that without imposing more burdens on our schools.” To date, SNA has been invited to testify at one Senate and two House hearings. These hearings have demonstrated an enormous knowledge base among the legislators about the complex issues. The questions posed by committee members to our experts have all been about digging deeper into the problems and identifying possible solutions. It’s also important to note that SNA’s legislative priorities are supported by many other stakeholder groups who come to Congress with their own wish lists in the face of Reauthorization. While there is not full agreement on all positions—and there rarely is!—it would seem that many groups have adopted our position paper, and we have not been made aware of any proposals that we would vigorously oppose. Alternate Routes While we take at face value the expressed intention of key congressional leaders to reauthorize the child nutrition programs before they expire at the end of September, SNA isn’t putting all its legislative eggs in one basket. If a Reauthorization bill is not completed by the end of September, the process will continue continue to be funded. But it’s possible that the operational and administrative challenges we seek to resolve will be left hanging. This is why we continue to support several individual bills that have been introduced separate from Reauthorization. (For a list of all the child nutrition-related bills introduced in this Congress, visit www. schoolnutrition.org/CNBillsIntroduced.) For example, the bipartisan Healthy School Meals Flexibility Act, sponsored by Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) and Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), would provide permanent flexibility to aid schools in complying with USDA’s sodium and whole grain requirements. This remains a critical priority for SNA and its members, and we will seek every opportunity to make it a reality, including returning to the Appropriations process, as we did in 2014, when we received temporary, one-year waivers related to these requirements. In fact, the Appropriations bill for 2016 currently includes an extension of these waivers. Of course, SNA would prefer a permanent fix, but we appreciate that the Committee clearly understands the gravity of the issue. Road Warriors One thing that has been extremely gratifying in working with Congress this year is having been approached by so many legislators and their staff before they introduce a bill related to school meal programs. They are coming to SNA because you are going to them. The process is working. Our legislative advocacy starts and ends with you. You are driving us along the road to Reauthorization—and to other legislative success. Your feedback identifies the priorities for the Position Paper. Your grassroots outreach to lawmakers provides the essential education about operational realities. Your obvious passion and care for America’s kids elevates and supports the validity of your concerns. Please continue to do your part. The box at left features a few reminders of the advocacy steps each individual SNA member can take today to help ensure we reach our destination. It’s pedal-to-the-metal time, folks! We’ll risk that speeding ticket! Cathy Schuchart is SNA’s staff vice president of government affairs and media relations. Sherri Lehman is SNA’s director of federal government affairs. Sign up for Tuesday Morning, SNA’s weekly web-based policy and awareness newsletter, featuring regular updates of state and federal legislative activity. Visit www.schoolnutrition.org/Newsletters/TuesdayMorning to start receiving this e-newsletter in your inbox! Take Your Turn at the Wheel The one-on-one legislative advocacy of SNA members is an essential element in the Association’s past and future success. Here are two steps you can take right now to keep us on course. Back-to-school season is a perfect occasion to invite federal lawmakers to your school cafeteria for a site visit. These are more effective than simple office meetings because they give your elected representative a firsthand look at how school nutrition programs actually operate, while demonstrating your own expertise on the issues. There is natural national and local media attention each year when kids head back to school. Lawmakers with an eye on the 2016 elections likely will be on the lookout for opportunities to get a little positive media notice and eating lunch with school children is always a terrific photo op! Have you registered for SNA’s Action Alerts system? When a critical, time-sensitive issue comes up, we rely on thousands of SNA members to do their part in this important two-minute advocacy. Register at www.schoolnutrition.org/takeaction and you will receive real-time notice when we need e-mails of support or opposition to be sent to members of Congress. For more details about following through on these and other essential advocacy steps, see “The Great Policy Guide for SNA,” published in SN’s February 2015 issue.
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