The School Nutrition Association – our governing organization as child nutrition professionals – represents more than 57,000 of us across the United States. The association shares our goal and mission to feed the future of America, and supports us with resources, continuing education, training, certification and networking opportunities. Each year, the association collects feedback from its members about the struggles they face and the concerns they have about their operations. Using this feedback, SNA drafts and publishes a Position Paper with their requests to Congress concerning legislation that affects child nutrition. Let’s dive into the points from the 2018 Position Paper in greater detail.

Point 1: Oppose any effort to block grant school meal programs. 

Urging Congress to “stop the block” is at the top of the list in this year’s Position Paper. This is because SNA regards block grants as a “clear and present danger” to child nutrition programs, according to SNA. Block grants are a proposal presented by the U.S. Education and Workforce Committee to return local control to each individual state. Block grants were also proposed as a means to reign in a federal deficit that is “spiraling out of control.” According to SNA, in September 2015, the Congressional Budget Office projected that “rising food prices and changing demographics would likely drive increases in federal spending on child nutrition programs to about $31 billion by 2025.”

If block grants are passed, this would mean significant funding cuts to the child nutrition program – a program that was promised in 1946 that students would always have access to healthy meals at school. We’re all too familiar that child nutrition programs already have to operate on a shoestring budget. Today, more than 30 million students rely on school meals to provide the nutrition they need to succeed. For many students, the meal(s) they receive at school may be the only meal(s) they get that day. If the entitlement that was promised to schools and students took a cut in funding…it would serve as a huge promise to child nutrition programs everywhere.

If you’re still unsure what block grants are, or want to learn more about how they could affect your operations if enacted, be sure to check out this blog post from a few weeks ago.

Point 2: Support H.R. 3738, the Healthy Breakfasts Help Kids Learn Act.

Remember this graphic I shared in one of my past blogs about making the most out of your USDA Foods, or “commodities”?

Lunches served in SY 2016-2017

Currently, commodity support (as shown above, in the PAL account balance) is only provided for school lunch. SNA is urging Congress to support the Healthy Breakfasts Help Kids Learn Act in 2018. Introduced by Congressmen Jim McGovern (D-MA) and Rodney Davis (R-IL), H.R. 3738 would “provide commodity support for the School Breakfast Program (SBP).” How much commodity support exactly? The proposed amount is six cents for every school breakfast served. If this bill passes, your district would be receiving commodity support for lunches served (as shown in the photo above), and for breakfasts served (as shown below).

Breakfasts served in SY 2016-2017

While USDA Foods can be used for child nutrition programs’ breakfast menus, the commodity entitlement fund these programs receive is only based off the number of lunches the district served in the previous year. Yet 14 million breakfasts are served every single day! Expanding USDA Foods to support the SBP will allow more students to benefit from a nutritious school breakfast, which in turn would help schools cover rising food/operational costs and advance the USDA’s mission of supporting American agriculture.

Point 3: Continue to monitor and support USDA’s work to simplify overly burdensome child nutrition mandates to improve efficiencies and reduce costs.

In the 2018 Position Paper, SNA is urging Congress to work with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to establish federal regulations that are simple, yet effective. Here’s a statement that I believe most of us can agree upon: when we, as child nutrition professionals, struggle to keep up with the ever-changing federal regulations that affect our programs, our focus is taken away from our mission of feeding our students. Many of these regulations even adversely affected the program, to add insult to injury. These unintended consequences included “reduced student lunch participation, higher costs and food waste”, according to SNA.

The newly-appointed U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, is making great strides to listen to child nutrition professionals about their needs and concerns. As a grandfather himself, Perdue has seen his grandchildren turn their noses up at school food, and he acknowledges that the many of the strict federal policies and regulations aren’t working. While addressing the SNA at the 2017 Annual National Conference, Perdue even compared the strict federal regulations on school meal programs to his own family dynamic in the kitchen.

“…we wanted to put more decision-making in the hands of the folks at the local level. Let me just give you a simple illustration: My wife Mary is known for her delicious pound cakes. She can make quite a pound cake. Now, she didn’t have any professional nutrition training to do that. But I’m the scientist in the family; I’m a graduate veterinarian. And I wanna ask you…would you rather have a pound cake cooked by this scientist, or the lady who knows what she’s doing?”

Secretary Perdue wants the USDA to continue working with SNA to accomplish the common goal. And SNA hopes to continue working with Perdue and the USDA to make changes that will positively affect child nutrition. It seems like “Secretary Sonny” is on our side. To learn more about Sonny Perdue’s background and stance on school meal flexibility, check out this blog post.

Point 3a: Final rule in flexibility – Maintain the Target 1 sodium levels and eliminate future targets.

On the note of flexibility, SNA is urging Congress to cool it with the sodium targets in Point 3b of the 2018 Position Paper. As we all know, excessive amounts of sodium in one’s diet can be detrimental to his or her health, no matter their age. But sodium plays many essential roles in the body, and is perfectly healthy when consumed in moderation.

After the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 was passed, the real trouble with sodium in school meals began. As you probably remember, schools across the nation had to make significant sodium reductions to their menus in order to meet Target 1, as shown below.

Sodium Targets - Level 1

Even the Institute of Medicine warned that “reducing the sodium content of school meals as specified and in a way that is well accepted by students will present major challenges and may not be possible.” SNA reported that 92% of responding districts are “concerned about the availability of foods that will meet future sodium limits” and feel it would be even harder to find compliant foods that their students would actually eat.

What about the naturally-occurring sodium that shows up in meat (required for reimbursable meals), milk (also required for reimbursable meals), or even low-fat dairy foods? Even if they aren’t products with added sodium, they would still count against the sodium limits for the meal. Imposing nearly impossible sodium restrictions on school meals will force schools to take nutritious choices off the menu, including soups, entrée salads, and even low-fat sandwiches. SNA is pushing for Congress to stick with Target 1, which was already difficult to adapt to, but school nutrition programs are making it work.

If Congress hears SNA’s plea to stick to Target 1, but school nutrition programs are maintaining Target 2 or even Final Target levels in their operations, that is totally okay! But, Congress is asking that if child nutrition programs meet at least Target 1, they should be considered compliant of federal school meal standards.

Point 3b: Restore the initial requirement that at least half of grains offered with school meals by whole grain-rich.

The final point of the position paper also has to do with school meal flexibility, although this time, it’s with whole grains. The current mandate that all grains offered in school meals be whole grain-rich has “increased waste and costs, and contributed to the decline in student lunch participation”, according to SNA. While students are eating more whole grains, schools are still struggling to cater to students’ regional and cultural preferences – think white rice, pasta, or even tortillas. SNA feels that schools should be permitted to serve these refined grains – in moderation, of course – just as the students’ families do at home.

Since the mandate was enacted, the USDA established a waiver to allow the schools that are struggling to serve select refined grains that don’t meet the standard. But this waiver process is inconsistent across states. This limits the availability of waivers to struggling schools unable to meet the requirements, simply because the waiver process is too tedious and administrators even discourage their schools from applying. These waivers ask for a lot of documentation, some of which is nearly impossible for school nutrition programs to even collect.

SNA is urging Congress to restore the requirement that at least half (instead of all) grains offered with school meals be whole grain-rich. This would provide child nutrition programs with more options that their students would actually consume, increasing participation and reducing food waste.

Now what?

Now that you know what SNA is pushing for in 2018, how can you get involved?

  1. Read the Position Paper, if you haven’t already. Then bring your staff up to speed. Help them to understand how these changes in legislation could affect their jobs, the work they do, and the children they serve – whether positively or negatively.
  2. Visit the School Nutrition Action Network to take action! Sign up for action alerts, and even contact your legislators directly to tell them about the child nutrition legislation you support.
  3. Read the Support Letter for H.R. 3738 to see exactly why SNA supports the “Healthy Breakfasts” bill.
  4. Skim the Block Grant Fact Sheet to get your talking points together for the 2018 Legislative Action Conference.
  5. Invite your legislators to lunch! Show them the students you serve, help them understand your concerns and struggles in your operations, and explain to them how legislation could affect your program. For tips on a legislator site visit, check out this link.

Share your thoughts!

Which point from the Position Paper is the most important to you and your operations? Which of the struggles above have affected your operations the most in the past year(s)? Will you be at LAC this year? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

About the Author:

I'm Cheyenne Meyer, a former Marketing Specialist and traveling public speaker for PrimeroEdge. I believe that all students deserve high quality school nutrition in order to maximize their learning potential. I am passionate about finding new ways to inform school nutrition professionals about the tools and practices necessary to help them serve more students.