Last week, I provided a glimpse into what to expect at the School Nutrition Association’s 46th Annual Legislative Action Conference (LAC) held March 3-6 in Washington, D.C. This week, I’d like to share all things LAC 2018 – from what we learned, what we did, and how we can continue to advocate for child nutrition. This conference, held annually by the SNA, is an opportunity for school nutrition professionals from across the country to unite in our country’s capitol for three days of education, networking and advocacy. Together, we learned about America’s political climate, the link between breakfast and academic success, and the dangers of block grants for school meals programs. We heard from senior leadership at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to discover the latest program updates, and how they will shape our programs in the coming year. We also came together to “charge the Hill!” – putting on our suits and ties, making our way to Capitol Hill, and meeting with our state legislators to discuss proposed bills and action items that could affect child nutrition programs. With over 800 foodservice operators and industry representatives in attendance, LAC 2018 made a definite impact on the future of child nutrition.

Day 1: Breakout Sessions, Keynote Address, and School Breakfasts

While March 3 held the SNS credentialing exam and industry pre-conference sessions, the breakout and general sessions began on Sunday, March 4. Attendees were invited to attend breakout sessions on a multitude of important industry topics, from LAC 101 to procurement ethics to natural disaster preparation and impact. All LAC attendees were then welcomed to the opening general session and keynote address*, with renowned political experts Peter Hart and Frant Luntz. With Hart representing the Democratic Party, and Luntz representing the Republican Party, the two playfully bantered and discussed their thoughts and insights on the political landscape in the U.S.

The first general session, “The Learning Connection: The Link Between School Breakfast and Academic Performance”* with Dr. Keith Ayoob, was an extremely insightful presentation alluding to the importance of Point 2 in SNA’s 2018 Position Paper. As we remember from the Position Paper, SNA calls on Congress to “Support the Healthy Breakfasts Help Kids Learn Act, to provide six cents in USDA Foods for every school breakfast served” in Point 2. In his general session, Dr. Ayoob presented factual evidence that students who regularly eat breakfast perform better in the classroom. A hungry child cannot learn, and Dr. Ayoob presented data that directly linked students who missed out on a regular breakfast to increased classroom misconduct, absences, illness, and – you guessed it – poorer academic performance. These facts and figures were shocking, and certainly motivated attendees to continue advocating for those extra six cents in breakfast commodities to continue growing their School Breakfast Programs and fueling their students’ bodies and minds.

Day 2: USDA Update, Block Grants and the 2018 Position Paper

The second general session of the conference was the USDA 2018 Update*, where attendees heard directly from senior-level USDA officials. A few of these updates included the announcement of new USDA Foods (commodities) available for SY 2019-2020, and their product preview sheets. These are:

  • mixed berry cup (frozen), 96/4 oz
  • mixed veggies, 4-way blend (frozen), 30 lb
  • chicken drumstick (2.0 MMA) (frozen), 4/10 lb
  • chicken fillet, cooked (2.0 MMA) (frozen), 30 lb
  • egg patty, cooked (1.0 MMA)(frozen), 25 lb case
  • 100% white whole wheat flour, 8/5 lb, 25 lb, 50 lb

The USDA also announced the reduction in number of days to resolve a USDA Foods complaint (now 18 days, as opposed to 26 days in 2017), and the two themes USDA plans to focus on in 2018: “Farm to Everything” (Farm to School, Farm to CACFP and Farm to Summer), and Program Integrity/Technology. The USDA also announced that the Food Buying Guide for child nutrition professionals is now available as an app, so you can access this web-based tool for the interactive Food Buying Guide comparison feature, recipe analysis workbook, and product formulation statement workbook.

In the third general session, “Block Grants: What They Are and Why You Should Be Concerned”*, attendees dove even deeper into the dangers of block grants, a proposed legislative change and funding cut that has been discussed since 2016. Block grants, if passed into legislation, would allow for funding to be frozen at the state level for each state – meaning that additional funding would not be given to the states to respond to population growth, economic recession, or even natural disasters. With opposing block grants to school meal programs as the most important point in the 2018 Position Paper, attendees learned just how much damage fixed sum block grants could cause to child nutrition programs across the nation. While we can all agree that we need to do something to shrink the federal deficit, it is important for all of us as child nutrition advocates to stress the importance of not cutting the funds to child nutrition as a solution to “trim the fat”. As we all know – there is no fat to trim!

At the closing general session*, the SNA Public Policy and Legislative committee discussed in-depth the points of the 2018 Position Paper. They also armed all attendees with the knowledge, talking points and lobbying tips they would need to “charge the Hill” the next day. Many child nutrition professionals made their way to the microphones to share their own concerns, ask questions, and tell personal stories of how proposed legislative changes could affect their programs. After this energizing and motivating session, advocates (both foodservice operators and industry members) met with their state delegations to determine the legislative appointments they would make on Capitol Hill the next day. The School Nutrition Foundation (SNF) then held the “Celebration of School Nutrition Heroes“, to honor child nutrition professionals who go above and beyond to make a huge difference in kids’ lives each day.

*To view any of the aforementioned presentations in their entirety, please download the SNA Events app, where you can access and download any of the conference presentations.

Day 3: Charge to the Hill!

The final day of the conference was an opportunity for attendees from all fifty states to make their way to Capitol Hill to meet with their local legislators and discuss the talking points from the 2018 Position Paper. While many of the child nutrition advocates were unable to meet with their Congressmen/Congresswomen, they were either able to a) meet with the legislator’s staff to discuss the talking points and provide information on each talking point, or b) leave information at their legislator’s office for him/her/his or her staff to review when he or she returns to office.

I had the privilege of meeting with staff members for two Texas legislators – Congressman Pete Olson, and Congressmen Ted Poe. I did not become discouraged that I was meeting with a staff member instead of the congressman; as SNA emphasized during the conference, this is often the case, and no less important for making your voice heard in D.C. The staff members were attentive, took lots of notes, asked questions, and made a promise to pass our information and talking points on to the legislator. I feel confident knowing that my voice was heard, and I am returning to Texas with high hopes that our legislators will protect America’s children and continue to support school meal programs.

What Happens in D.C. Shouldn’t Stay in D.C.!

The 2018 Legislative Action Conference may be over, but our work doesn’t stop there. As we return back to our schools, our offices, our congressional districts – it is our continued mission to advocate for the nutrition programs our students depend on and deserve. There are many ways you can continue to have your voice heard:

So, you charged the Hill…
If you attended LAC and took part in “charging the Hill”, don’t forget to send an email to the Congressman, Congresswoman or staff member you met with to thank him or her for taking the time to meet with you. Do this even if you don’t feel that the meeting ended in your favor, or even if you weren’t able to make contact with your local legislator. Let whoever you met with know that you can and will be their child nutrition point of contact/”boots on the ground” moving forward, should they have any questions or need additional information from you concerning the legislation and talking points you discussed. Keep the line of communication open with them. It is your right as a constituent to share your opinions, thoughts and concerns about legislative action with your representatives!

Or maybe you weren’t able to “charge the Hill”…
If you didn’t attend LAC or weren’t able to “charge the Hill”, you still can and do play a vital role in sharing your thoughts and opinions on proposed legislation concerning child nutrition. Visit the SNA Action Network to take action in various ways, like contacting your Congressman/Congresswoman, all from the comfort of your office or home. You can also access the slides of all presentations from LAC by downloading the SNA Events mobile app, available for iOS and Android devices.

Share what you learned with your team back home.
While we had a great attendance at this year’s conference, many child nutrition professionals are unable to attend due to scheduling conflicts, work, or cost. Be their eyes and ears, and bring them up to speed on everything you learned and experienced in D.C.! Share the updates from the USDA, any important information you learned in the general/breakout sessions, and your experiences on the Hill! A little fuzzy on the facts that were shared? Don’t worry – all presentations from the conference are available on the SNA events mobile app. Bring this important information to your staff’s attention in a slideshow, Lunch ‘N Learn opportunity, or workshop in your next in-service. Help them to be just as engaged as you are, and invite them to also visit the SNA Action Network, to ensure that they understand the importance of their voice in D.C.

Invite your legislators to lunch!
You know how they say politicians love “shakin’ hands and kissin’ babies”? While this saying is a bit of a stretch, legislators do enjoy getting to know their constituents at the local level, and are happy to set up a time to visit with you at your school district if their schedules allow. Reach out to the legislator from your congressional district to see if he or she would like to set up some time to visit one of your schools for a meal, and to discuss legislation that could affect your students and operations. You could even invite them to put on a hairnet and gloves, and join your staff in the serving line. This is a great photo-op…and a great opportunity for the legislator to see firsthand the children you serve, the struggles you face in your operations, and the commitment you have to nourishing children so that they may succeed in class and become successful adults (and future voters!).

Make plans to attend LAC 2019.
LAC is one of the most important SNA conferences held each year. Whether you were able to attend or not this year, definitely make plans to attend next year – to network with child nutrition professionals from across the country, hear the latest news and updates from the USDA and other industry thought leaders, and join together to advocate for school meals on Capitol Hill

Share Your Thoughts

Want to share your experiences from Capitol Hill this week? Have a question about any of the topics discussed above? What was your favorite session or part of LAC 2018? Any new information surprise you? Share your thoughts in the comments below. We love hearing from child nutrition professionals like you.