This week, several PrimeroEdgers including myself are up near Dallas, TX to attend the Texas Association of School Nutrition’s Industry Conference, or iTASN. It’s always good to get out of the office and mingle with the school nutrition professionals that we serve.

Industry conference is a little different than normal annual conference in that industry conference doesn’t have an exhibit hall with food distributors and technology vendors marketing their goods and services. So, if you’re looking for another show with free food swag, this isn’t it.

At industry conference, all of the learning sessions are focused specifically on how we can impact our school nutrition industry by spearheading change and progress. It’s for the do-ers, the type-A’s, the thought-leaders, the innovators. You want to meet some of the brightest and most passionate minds in child nutrition today? Just head on over to your state’s industry conference. You’re sure to find a plethora of them there!

At this year’s iTASN, we’re already off to a great start. The first session this morning was focused solely on School Nutrition Association’s Legislative Action Conference (LAC), which is quickly approaching at the end of February. LAC is a chance for school nutrition professionals, like yourself, to put on your traveling pants and head on up to Washington D.C. to speak with members of the U.S. Congress on school nutrition issues. It’s the time when our voices can be heard, and it’s our biggest chance at bringing about real change in our industry. Change that we all so desperately want!

Each state brings a delegation up to the Capitol and pre-arranges meetings with your state and local representatives in Congress. Living in Texas, we have quite a few more meetings to arrange than some other states – 38 to be exact! (36 House Reps, and 2 Senators) A lot of representatives to meet with brings with it a huge opportunity to be influential in the policies that govern child nutrition.

Chris Kamradt, the Director of Child Nutrition for Spring Branch ISD in Houston, TX, gave us an overview of the process, along with several tips on how to make your voice heard. I’ve listed just a few of his talking points that I felt were the most important to remember moving forward, whether or not you are already planning to head up to Washington.

Point #1
You may not meet directly with the Congress-person, but that’s okay! (In fact, sometimes meeting with a staffer is preferable.)

You may be asking yourself, “Why would I go all the way up to Washington to meet with my representative and then be stuck giving my spiel to a member of their office staff instead? Why even go at all?” At first, I had those same exact thoughts. After all, meeting your congressional representative would be pretty dang cool! But unless your representative is known to be a school nutrition advocate, you’re better off talking to someone on their staff that has researched the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act (HHFKA), the reauthorization, and some of the hotly debated items like the sodium and whole grain regulations. More often than not, the staffer will be a more attentive listener than your representative, carefully recording your key talking points and engaging in educated discussions surrounding child nutrition. The staffers have influence too, and the more of us that they hear from, the more likely we are for our collective voices to be heard.

Point #2
Stick to the SNA Position Paper talking points.

This is an important thing to remember. The rationale here is that by sticking to the official SNA position paper areas of focus, the school nutrition industry will present a unified front in Washington D.C. If you would like a few more minutes of the representative’s time to discuss another passion project close to your heart, politely ask for it after the meeting is over. Chances are, they’ll give you another couple of minutes to say what you have to say. After all, they are in the business of listening to their constituents.

Point #3
If there is something that you’re extremely passionate about, lead the conversation with it.

Your passion for the subject will come through in your interaction with the congressional representative (or the staffer). They’ll catch on to that fire that you feel for the topic, and be more apt to listen intently to something that you obviously feel very strongly for. While you’re detailing the reasons that the representative should view this subject with as much passion as you do, remember to get to the “ask” fairly quickly. Don’t be afraid to be forthright in letting the representative know what you want from them. Will they support you? If not, what are their hesitations and how can you help overcome them?

Point #4
Vendors are welcome at LAC too!

This was a question that came up in the LAC session. YES – vendors are absolutely welcome to attend LAC alongside their school district counterparts. In fact, the more vendors that attend, the better the school nutrition industry looks from an outsiders perspective as we head into DC. Walking into these congressional meetings side-by-side, schools and vendors, we display a unified partnership. We’re letting our representatives that are committed to working together to move our industry forward for the good of the children we serve.

Point #5
Let your voice be heard – even if you’re not able to make it to Washington D.C.

Can’t make it to D.C.? That’s totally understandable. We all have budgetary restrictions, limited vacation days, and prior unavoidable commitments. But you can still make a difference! Just a simple phone call to your local representative’s office can make a huge difference. Trust me, they’re writing a note down that Lucy from Tomball, TX doesn’t think the sodium restrictions are a good idea. The more phone calls they get on the subject, the more likely they are to take up the cause. Your voice can carry all the way to Washington!

The official 2016 SNA Position Paper will be developed in the next few weeks by some highly passionate, educated school nutrition professionals. I’ll be sure to link to it when it is released. I hope you’ll consider attending LAC in Washington D.C. in February. And like I mentioned, if you can’t make it, consider calling your local representative to let your voice be heard.

For now, I’m going to leave you with an photo of what my day looks like at conference. Laptop, notebook, schedule, and (not pictured) lots and lots of coffee! Heading back to iTASN now…