Are you ready for School Nutrition Association’s 2018 Legislative Action Conference? Also known as LAC, this year’s event is held March 4-6, 2018 at the JW Marriott in Washington, D.C. Whether it’s your first time attending or you’re a LAC veteran, this conference is an unforgettable experience. Held each spring when Congress is in session, this conference is an opportunity for school nutrition professionals to meet with their respective state legislators to advocate for the children and programs that they serve. Attendees will hear the latest updates from SNA and the USDA, sit in on keynote addresses delivered by political experts, and prepare to “charge the hill” on the final day of the conference.

Know Before You Go

The Setup

Crawford explained that LAC has two purposes. The first is the actual conference – two days of meetings and education sessions, just like you would have at any other SNA conference. One of the positives, he feels, is that during the USDA Update (held on Monday, March 5), the attendees will have access to some of the senior level professionals at the USDA. This means that the information they share in the general session has not been filtered through multiple channels, and contains the most up-to-date information from the USDA.

In addition to hearing from keynote speakers who are heavily involved in the legislative process, attendees will also dive deep into SNA’s 2018 Position Paper. Three of the general sessions, including the closing general session “Presentation of the SNA 2018 Position Paper and Charge to the Hill!”, will prepare attendees with important information, updates and talking points to take with them when they “charge the hill”. The final day of the conference (Tuesday, March 6) is when the attendees will meet with their state legislators on Capitol Hill.

“The ‘charge to the hill’ is the meat and potatoes of what we do,” said Crawford. “The hope on that Tuesday is that SNA members will get to every Congressional office. That really is the most important and exciting piece of the conference. You get a sense that you are participating in a political process. You leave knowing that you’ve fulfilled your right as an American citizen.”

Why Your Role is Vital at LAC

Crawford explained that Chris Kamradt, the Director of Child Nutrition at Spring Branch ISD and former Policy Chair for TASN, recruited Crawford to attend the conference many years ago by helping Crawford realize his potential of enacting change in Washington. Every five years, school nutrition programs are scheduled to be reauthorized, improved and strengthened. During that reauthorization period, child nutrition professionals are responsible for advocating for the survival of their programs (NSLP, SBP, CACFP, etc.). All of these programs could be completely done away with at reauthorization.

“This is something I take for granted, that funding will always be there to feed the kids,” Crawford said. “Funding is always in jeopardy. It is incumbent on people in this industry to go and advocate for those students, because the students are not going to be able to go and advocate for themselves. Someone needs to fill that role, making sure that [the students’] needs are heard. And that should be us.”

What to Pack

As with any conference, you’ll want to bring the basics to LAC: a notepad and pen, or a tablet/laptop/smartphone for taking notes during the education sessions and meetings. Don’t forget your water bottle to stay hydrated, and an umbrella just in case. The average high in D.C. in March is 55°F, so also be sure to pack warm clothes!

In addition to warm clothes, you’ll want to pack business attire, as this conference encourages all attendees to dress professionally for Monday’s SNF Celebration of School Nutrition Heroes. You’ll also want to wear your business attire on Tuesday, your day on Capitol Hill. It is important to look professional when meeting with your Congressmen/Congresswomen to discuss legislative changes, so make sure you look your best. You’ll want to remember, however, to pack shoes that are dressy, but also comfortable. When navigating D.C., you will be doing a LOT of walking, so be prepared and take care of those feet!

If you need a District or School Profile Sheet to complete and bring with you for your visits on Capitol Hill, call (800) 877-8822 and ask the SNA Service Center representative to fax one to you. You can also visit this link to fill the form out online.

What to Talk About

When you arrive at your legislator’s office on Capitol Hill, you may be surprised to have a meeting with his or her aid instead. Don’t be discouraged! In most cases, this is a positive – you will have the opportunity to speak with someone on the legislator’s staff who has researched the bills, legislative actions and “hot topics” in child nutrition that you’ll want to talk about. As my colleague Amanda Freeman pointed out in a previous LAC blog:

“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.”

There are a few more tips to remember when you have your legislator’s (or their office staff member’s) ear. First, remember to review the talking points from the SNA Position Paper, run through what you plan to say, and then stick to those talking points in your meeting. By sticking to the official position paper areas of focus, the school nutrition industry will present a unified front in Washington. If you would like a few more minutes of the representative’s time to discuss another passion project that does not concern child nutrition, politely ask for it after the meeting is over.

Another thing to remember when communicating with your Congressman/Congresswoman and staff is that if there is something you’re extremely passionate about, lead the conversation with that topic. Others can sense your passion when they hear you speak about it, and will be more open to listen to the thing you feel strongly about. Tell a story or give an example of how the legislative action could affect your program, or the children you serve. An illustration may strike a chord with them – while they may forget the details of the issue, the story will stick with them, according to SNA.

“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,” Freeman explained. “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?”

Lobbying Tips for the “Charge to the Hill”

SNA shared a Lobbying Tips document to provide attendees with strategies and pointers for tackling the big day. Here are a few important tips to remember when it’s time to “charge the hill”:

  1. Center the discussion on child nutrition. This may seem like an obvious tip, but it is very important to remember when you’re on the Hill. Explain how your school program works and the impact it has in the local community. Provide information to the office and be prepared to leave behind further information. Find ways to be creative in the information you leave behind – include photos of school meals, students enjoying the meals, etc.
  2. Leave the politics OUT! Avoid being partisan or argumentative. Instead stick to being informative and educating the legislator or his/her aid. Be friendly and positive in your communication.
  3. It’s okay to say “I don’t know.” Talk about what you do know, but if you are asked a question you don’t know the answer to, it’s okay to say “I don’t know but I can get that information for you.” You can also ask them to call SNA’s Government Affairs and Media Relations Center for the information.
  4. Build the relationship. It’s a good idea to have this legislator and his/her team on your side, so make every effort you can to establish a long-term relationship with the staff person handling child nutrition. SNA suggests exchanging business cards, and inviting the legislator or staff member to visit your school. SNA also suggests checking in with the point person periodically and “be sure to touch base when there are key votes. You want to be the person they call if they have questions on school nutrition issues.”
  5. Don’t forget to say thank you! Thank the legislator and/or their staff member for their time, regardless of whether or not they agree with you on the topics you have discussed. You never know – perhaps something you said really stuck with them, and will influence their decisions later!

Vendors on the Hill

Did you know three PrimeroEdge employees (including myself) will be joining you at LAC 2018, to learn the latest updates and “charge the hill”? And we aren’t the only vendors who will be there. Even though we don’t work on the frontlines like you do, we do share a common goal: to nourish the future of America. We are on your side, and want the same things for your students and your operations that you do! The more attendees – whether they are State agency staff, school nutrition staff, or vendors – the greater the chance we have to make our way into every Congressional office and share our passion for the legislative actions that could positively or negatively affect our industry.

Not Planning to Attend?

Even if you aren’t planning to attend this year’s LAC, there are still plenty of ways you can get involved in influencing legislative action for child nutrition! For starters:

  1. Visit org/TakeAction to send an Action Alert to your member of Congress on legislative actions that could potentially affect your operations.
  2. Set up a call with your member of Congress, or even plan to invite him or her to have lunch at your district so you can discuss how block grants would negatively affect the future of child nutrition. Check out this guide for setting up a site visit.
  3. Read the 2018 SNA Position Paper to understand exactly what LAC attendees are talking to legislators about when they “charge the hill” this year.

Share Your Thoughts!

Are there any tips that I failed to mention for getting ready to attend LAC? What’s something you wish you knew before going to your first LAC? Which topics do you plan to lead with when meeting with your legislators this year? Share your thoughts in the comments below. We’ll see you on the Hill!