Marshall Matz 0000-00-00 00:00:00
Think 2011 Was Busy? We can't falter in our efforts to protect America's valuable school meal programs. As hectic as 2011 was on the regulatory front, 2012 may be even busier. The ink on President Obama's signature of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 was barely dry before the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued its long-awaited proposed revisions to the school lunch and breakfast meal patterns. While these actions were not related events, the coincidence of the timing sure kept school nutrition professionals and advocates hopping as a result! SNA members have been fantastic throughout the entire process of assessing the impact of the proposed new rules on school meal operations-and we thank you for your reflections and insightful feedback. But don't sit back and think your work is done! Many important matters remain to be completed, and SNA's legislative team will be calling on you again throughout 2012. So, what has happened since the Legislative Action Conference (LAC) last March? We hope that you have been keeping updated through articles and materials posted to SchoolNutrition.org and shared in Tuesday Morning, SNA's weekly legislative e-newsletter. Regardless, this article is a great opportunity to recap where we've been-and preview where we're headed. Speaking Up As most of you know, early in 2011, a special SNA task force was established to review the proposed meal pattern regulations and develop SNA's official comments. The comment period is an important element in the federal government's rule making process and is an opportunity for the administrative agency (in this case, USDA) to hear from those most affected by proposed regulations in order to consider changes before the rules are final. SNA's task force included representatives of local school nutrition operations, state agencies and industry. The group carefully assessed and discussed every element of the proposed rule-from specific standards proposed for individual food items to provisions with broader implications, such as costs, the implementation time line (including the availability of food items that meet the new standards) and administrative changes. In the development of the official comments, the task force also incorporated concerns raised by many SNA members and collected through various venues, such as the Association's website and during special LAC listening sessions with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Deputy Under Secretary Janey Thornton, PhD, SNS, and other top officials from USDA's Food and Nutrition Service. SNA's comments were submitted on March 29, and they certainly have attracted attention! Since then, the Association's legislative team has participated in several meetings with USDA officials to emphasize both the membership's concerns and the desire that SNA be recognized as a proactive partner alongside USDA in improving school meals. As part of this ongoing partnership, we appreciated the attendance of Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, PhD, at the Annual National Conference in Nashville last summer. Not only did Dr. Merrigan address attendees during a General Session, she took the opportunity to speak with individual members, visit several exhibitors and witness firsthand your passionate commitment to the children you serve. In addition, over the months, SNA leadership has met with industry members on a number of occasions. SNA wants to ensure that these important partners know that the Association supports a practical implementation of revised meal standards. To bolster its position, SNA President Helen Phillips, SNS, and CEO Frank DiPasquale wrote to Secretary Vilsack Requesting that new meal standards be implemented on a voluntary basis during the 2012-13 school year. Schools that could meet the new requirements in this time line should be granted the 6-cent reimbursement mandated in the Healthy, Hunger- Free Kids Act, but schools should not be sanctioned or penalized if they can't comply with the new regulation without more time to prepare. SNA also used this opportunity to urge USDA to require a phased-in approach to the implementation of the new rule. This would provide manufacturers with sufficient time to develop new products to meet the standards. In addition, SNA requested that USDA separate lunch and breakfast provisions until sufficient financial resources are identified to implement the breakfast improvements. In all, more than 130,000 comments were submitted in response to this proposed rule. We have been assured on several occasions that USDA is giving serious consideration to all the feedback it received and that the final rule will include changes that reflect many of the concerns. By the time you read this article, the final rule may have been published; it is expected to be released before the end of the year or early in 2012. Then, the real work-implementation-will begin. Cents & Sensibility In the meantime, SNA remains concerned about Section 205 in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. This is a provision that, over time, will require all school food authorities to raise their prices to a level equal to the federal reimbursement rate. We disagree with those who take the position that this provision will provide a windfall of billions of dollars in support of school meal programs. Instead, we are mindful that parents are also facing economic difficulties, and we remain concerned that many children who are unable to pay higher prices, but who do not qualify for free/reduced-price meals, will drop out of the program. That consequence is not in the best interest of the program-nor is it in the best interest of children who will lose access to healthy, nutritious meals. SNA has submitted comments to USDA regarding this provision, urging the agency to establish a pilot program to test its impact before the requirement is implemented nationwide. On a more positive note, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act establishes a check to prevent school districts from collecting funds from the school nutrition department to pay for costs that are unrelated to school meals. SNA has been working very closely with USDA to develop comprehensive guidance regarding such indirect costs, urging the agency to provide definitions for those costs that are allowable, and those that are not. USDA also will conduct a study of indirect costs to determine if there is a need to go beyond guidance language and issue specific regulations. Another plus in the new law is the long-lobbied-for requirement that consistent nutrition standards be applied to all foods sold in schools throughout the school day. USDA is expected to propose a new competitive foods rule early in 2012, and SNA again will develop and issue formal comments in response to the proposed regulation. It is reasonable to expect that the competitive foods rule will mirror many of the requirements for reimbursable school meals, particularly those for a la carte offerings. But keep in mind that these new standards will extend to foods sold in vending machines and in school stores during the school day, with limited exceptions for infrequent fundraisers and special events. USDA also is required to establish a program of education, training and certification for school nutrition directors; criteria and standards for the selection of state agency directors; and required training and certification for local school nutrition personnel. The Department is also required to set dates for compliance. SNA leadership will be busy working closely with USDA in the development of these programs and standards. Farms & Schools On the legislative front, the Farm Bill is scheduled to be reauthorized in 2012-and while it may not seem to have a connection with school meal programs, it actually is an important bill for SNA and its allies. For example, the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program was created as part of prior Farm Bills, and "buy local" programs were supported in the last Farm Bill. SNA's legislative team is working to get school breakfast commodities included as part of the next Farm Bill; this would help supplement reimbursements in the School Breakfast Program, much in the same way that commodities currently supplement the lunch program. It's also important to recognize that a number of very important domestic food assistance programs-including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps), the Emergency Food Assistance Program (which provides food items to food banks) and the Commodity Supplemental Food Program- are key parts of the Farm Bill. Our friends in the nutrition and hunger community will be counting on our support for their programs, just as we looked to them for support of school meal programs during our own reauthorization efforts. Down to the Dollars Last, but definitely not least, SNA and its legislative efforts will be influenced by the ongoing budget battle and the very serious efforts being made to reduce federal spending and the national debt. While many groups are working side by side with SNA to protect nutrition programs in this process, it will be an uphill battle. The President and Congress are looking to cut the budget for USDA programs by as much as $30 billion. The single largest mandatory spending program in the USDA budget is SNAP (at nearly $80 billion), and the single largest discretionary spending program in the USDA budget (at nearly $7 billlion) is WIC (the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children). In fact, 77% of the annual Agricultural Appropriations bill is spent on domestic food assistance programs, including child nutrition. The Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction-the so-called "Super Committee"- has been charged with identifying $1.5 trillion in spending reductions spread over the next 10 years. At press time, the House and Senate were expected to vote on these recommendations by December 23 of this year. There is no question that USDA will be forced to take reductions. While the Administration has not recommended making cuts in any food assistance programs, the American Farm Bureau Federation recently suggested that funding reductions be made by "… spreading them out by making 30% of the necessary cuts in each of three program areas: commodity programs, conservation and nutrition, with 10% of the cuts in crop insurance funding." Concern, Not Complacency We cannot afford to take the chance that spending reductions might extend to child nutrition programs, even if they seem safe, for now. Many of you remember that when school meals were cut in the 1981 budget reconciliation process, participation in the National School Lunch Program fell by 3 million children! We need to educate every elected official about the value, efficiency and necessity of school meal programs, and that means all 535 members of Congress. SNA needs each of you to continue to be our most effective spokespeople in every community across the country. With your ongoing commitment and passion, we successfully face challenges each and every day. And with your help and vigilance, 2012 can and will be another successful year. Let's keep working together to provide our nation's children with continually improving school meals so that they are ready to learn-and prepared to succeed. Marshall Matz is SNA’s Washington counsel and a partner at Olson Frank Weeda PC (OFW) in Washington, D.C. Roger Szemraj is counsel for OFW. Visit SchoolNutrition.org for regular updates on SNA’s legislative activities. 4 GOOD REASONS Not to Miss (Any of) SNA's 40th Legislative Action Conference (LAC) 1 SNA unveils its annual Legislative Issue Paper, which sets the agenda for the Association's legislative activities for the year ahead. Come hear firsthand how the Public Policy & Legislation Committee identified the top priorities and learn how you can help achieve our goals. 2 This year's annual LAC Banquet (Tuesday, March 6) will feature entertainment from The Capitol Steps, a Washington-based troupe who use song, parodies, skits and satire to skewer politicians of every stripe. 3 We'll kick things off on Sunday with Charlie Cook, a well-respected political insider, who will preview the key races and issues of the 2012 general and presidential election. And don't plan to leave town early, because Wednesday's Closing General Session will feature a variety of political luminaries discussing the impact agriculture has and will have on school nutrition programs, the Farm Bill and the general election. 4 Each year, LAC attendees call it one of the most exciting and informative conferences in child nutrition. Don't you want to be a part of this historic milestone year? For more information and to register, visit www.Schoolnutrition.org/lac.
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