School Nutrition Advocates Tell Congress: Invest in Children
March 15, 2006--"If we do not invest in children today, the United States will not be the number-one economy in the next century." This was the message that more than 800 school nutrition advocates took to their lawmakers on Capitol Hill during the School Nutrition Association's 34th annual Legislative Action Conference (LAC), March 12-15, 2006. Marshall Matz, SNA's Washington counsel, urged LAC attendees to remember that "you are on the side of the angels."
The 2006 LAC saw record-breaking attendance, as 830 school nutrition operators, industry representatives, state agency personnel and other allies and supporters of child nutrition gathered at Washington's Renaissance Hotel.
This year's event kicked off Sunday, March 12, with several breakout sessions focused on individual topics and specific audiences. These included sessions for industry, state agency personnel and first-timers, as well as presentations on local school wellness policies, SNA's Political Action Committee, maximizing Hill visits, using the Internet for legislative action and working with the media.
Sunday's annual Keynote Luncheon traditionally features "An Insider's Look at Washington Politics." Political correspondent Mara Liasson capably fulfilled this charge, aptly describing the "full-blown panic" evidenced on Capitol Hill in the wake of a number of political scandals and snafus seen in this important mid-term election year. Liasson offered a number of examples of the "deterioration in the relationship between the White House and Congress," but noted that the Democrats were not yet benefiting from "the troubles in the Republican party." She previewed the 2008 presidential election, and then took questions from LAC attendees eager to understand more about how the current climate might affect their own advocacy for school nutrition issues.
LAC participants were treated to the political savvy of a number of experts throughout the four-day conference.
- Matz led attendees through the priorities outlined in SNA's 2006 Legislative Issue Paper, highlighting key messages. The first order of business, he said, was to thank lawmakers for preserving the federal child nutrition programs from budget cuts in 2005 and to do the same thing in 2006. "With a debt in the trillions, we can't take it for granted that these programs are safe," he warned. Matz also provided advice on advocating for funding for the authorized ERP (Eliminate the Reduced-Price meal category) pilot program, nutrition education, commodities for the School Breakfast Program and the McGovern-Dole International School Lunch Program. He urged the audience to stay on message: "There is no higher priority than our children. If we don't invest in them, what will be the future of this country?"
- U.S. Senators and Representatives have extraordinarily busy schedules, but LAC attendees were treated to personal visits by Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who offered this year's Carl D. Perkins Memorial Lecture. "I am excited to continue the legacy of Sen. Richard Russell [sponsor of the National School Lunch Act] in regard to school nutrition programs," said Sen. Chambliss. "I don't think there is a group in America that does a better job of [lobbying for your issues] than you do," he credited. "The whole concept of wellness policies is of vital importance and I appreciate your embracing this and being part of the solution," said Rep. Castle. At the Tuesday night banquet, Rep. DeLauro commended attendees on their work on behalf of children and emphasized the need for national nutrition standards because, “The children of Connecticut have the same nutritional needs as the children of California.” Sen. Tom Harkin sent his regards via video, as he announced plans to introduce a bill giving regulatory authority for all competitive foods served in school to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
- A panel of Capitol Hill staffers from key Senate and House committees shared their own insights. "It takes a number of years for Congress to 'get' it," noted Kate Houston, majority staff, House Committee on Education and the Workforce. "But the wellness policies will single-handedly give the greatest emphasis at the local level of what's going on with food served in schools. It will do tremendous things to raise awareness, reduce obesity and create innovation in improving wellness."
- A panel of representatives from allied organizations provided additional cheerleading for the cause--and the past achievements of school nutrition professionals. "You bring such credibility to these programs," credited Rick Leach, senior advisor, Friends of the World Food Programme. "You send an incredibly strong, unified message about what is needed--and what is right," agreed Ellen Teller, senior counsel, Food Research and Action Center. "Our children can't march on Washington, so you are here to do it for them."
This year's conference also featured a comprehensive USDA update, as well as a panel presentation on the challenges and obstacles related to eliminating the reduced-price meal category. The event closed with a dynamic Town Hall session on the pros and cons of advocating for national uniformity in nutrition standards. SNA will review the comment cards it received on this issue to determine its position and any future direction.
Dr. Josephine Martin was honored as this year's winner of the Gene White Lifetime Achievement Award at the third annual "A Possible Dream" benefit gala for the Child Nutrition Foundation. The gala also recognized Demetrious Giovas, SFNS, SNA's 2005 Outstanding Director of the Year, and Tami Cline, SFNS, SNA's 2005 Industry Member of the Year.
Handouts and available speaker presentations from this year's LAC are available in Related Links.