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Tisch Scholar Attends SNA and FRAC Conferences in DC

Ali Hard shares her experience advocating in Washington, DC for a strong Child Nutrition Reauthorization.

For the last few months, I have had the opportunity to observe and take part in a unique instance of coordinated city-level research and advocacy around the reauthorization of federal child nutrition programs (CNR). I have been privy to the interactions between city and federal agencies and politicians, and to the role of researchers and advocates in the shaping of policy. I have witnessed the influence of industry in political discussions where it does not belong, and been inspired by the power of collaborative work. 

As a Tisch Scholar at the Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education, and Policy at Teachers College, Columbia University, and a Food Policy intern in the Office of the Mayor of New York City, I have had the privilege of working with the New York City Alliance for Child Nutrition Reauthorization (NYC4CNR). NYC4CNR is a unique alliance of stakeholders in New York City, all working toward common goals in a policy area where such collaboration has not been the norm.     

As part of my work with NYC4CNR, I have learned about the discussions other groups are having about this legislation around the country. It is fascinating to see how the conversation around child nutrition programs has shifted over time. The National School Lunch Program was originally passed with broad bipartisan support, as a way for farmers to sell their surplus products, and for low-income children to get a meal at school. Unfortunately, these programs no longer enjoy the same bipartisan, above-reproach reputation. Today the conversation is centered on dismantling the science-based nutrition standards put in place under the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The beneficiaries of this kind of debate are not the hard-working school food service employees, nor the children who eat school meals, but instead a small subset of food companies who stand to benefit from a rollback of nutrition standards. Instead of talking about how we can feed more kids, or cultivate food literacy and healthy eating habits in schools, we are talking about how we can appease the frozen foods and processed meat industries. 

I recently had the opportunity to attend the School Nutrition Association’s (SNA’s) annual Legislative Action Conference in Washington, D.C. SNA is an organization that represents school nutrition directors as well as industry members, and they are calling for rollbacks of the nutrition standards in place under the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. Specifically, they propose rolling back sodium and whole grain requirements, and eliminating the requirement for ½ cup fruit or vegetable in a reimbursable meal. Though the challenges school nutrition directors face in implementing the nutrition standards are real, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has said that 93% of school districts have successfully implemented them, and that no school district has been penalized by USDA for not adhering to the standards.  Additionally, multiple studies have shown that plate waste has not increased since implementation of the new standards, and that fruit and vegetable consumption has increased[1][2].     

In short, the standards are working. So, why is SNA still calling for rollbacks? I found the answer at my lunch table at the Legislative Action Conference: industry membership. At my table of ten, two were there representing food industry companies. My neighbor, a charming conversationalist, was there on behalf of the potato division of ConAgra foods. Our afternoon refreshment break was sponsored by PepsiCo, and included only soda (no food or water to be found). Attendees at the conference were greeted by signs advertising sponsorship from such companies as Domino’s Pizza. We also spent over an hour listening to a presentation by Dr. Robert Heaney, a researcher on osteoporosis and a paid dairy industry consultant, on how the Level 2 and 3 sodium requirements under HHFKA not only lacked evidence, but would likely hurt children. My neighbor, of ConAgra, asked me after the presentation whether or not Mr. Heaney’s statements lined up with what I was learning at Columbia. I explained to him that they did not, and pointed out that I would take any scientific analysis from a paid industry consultant with a grain of salt.

After a day at the SNA conference, I headed to the other side of town to attend the 2015 Anti-Hunger Policy Conference, organized by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) and Feeding America. Highlights of my day included hearing from Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack on the critical role of child nutrition programs and SNAP, and Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services Kevin Concannon on how the USDA has offered support and flexibility to school districts to help them offer healthier foods to children. I also attended a session focused on CNR, which featured key congressional staffers from both parties, alongside USDA officials. Though panelists acknowledged the critical role—and bipartisan history—of these programs, they told the group that in Congress, the conversation is unlikely to be about expanding access, but rather about efficiency and streamlining, or, in other words, budget cuts. Denise Forte, Minority Staff Director for the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, explained that while there is room to make progress with advocacy, the CNR process will likely be about stopping the bleeding from cuts, rather than about feeding more children healthy food. 

While the discourse I heard at the SNA and Anti-Hunger Policy conferences was at times disheartening, I left D.C. feeling hopeful. In our New York City delegation’s conversations with legislators during the Anti-Hunger Policy Conference Day on the Hill, I saw the beauty of the NYC4CNR alliance in action. Advocates in the anti-hunger field spoke passionately about nutrition standards in school meals, and public health nutritionists made compelling arguments for programs like SNAP. As Sister Simone Campbell told conference attendees, “the challenge for some of us is to believe change can happen.” The truth is that the problems we are worried about—like hunger, and inequitable access to quality food—are solvable. We have excellent government programs that address these issues every day, and that demonstrate that government works.

 


NYC4CNR: Goals & Priorities

The members of NYC4CNR are united around the goals of ending child hunger and food
insecurity; ensuring access to high-quality, nutritious, locally grown foods; reducing
obesity and diet-related diseases; and strengthening regional farm and food economies. 

 We are asking for a strong Child Nutrition Reauthorization that:

  1. Ensures that every child has year-round access to high quality food.
  2. Maintains nutrition standards and supports nutrition education.
  3. Increases program resources and technical assistance.


    Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization: 6 Key Federal Programs

Child Nutrition Reauthorization is the federal process that occurs every five years, and provides an opportunity to change existing legislation governing the federal child
nutrition programs that provide low-income children and families with nutritious food.

Federal programs included in the legislation are: Special Supplemental Nutrition Program
for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), National School Lunch Program (NSLP), Child
and Adult Care Feeding Program (CACFP), School Breakfast Program (SBP), Summer
Food Service Program (SFSP), and the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program.

 

 

[1]Schwartz Marlene B., Henderson Kathryn E., Read Margaret, Danna Nicole, and Ickovics Jeannette R.. Childhood Obesity. -Not available-, ahead of print. doi:10.1089/chi.2015.0019.

[2] “Impact of the New U.S. Department of Agriculture School Meal Standards on Food Selection, Consumption, and Waste,” Juliana F.W. Cohen, Scott Richardson, Ellen Parker, Paul J. Catalano, Eric B. Rimm, American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 46(4):388-394, online March 4, 2014

Published Wednesday, Mar. 18, 2015

Tisch Scholar Attends SNA and FRAC Conferences in DC

For the last few months, I have had the opportunity to observe and take part in a unique instance of coordinated city-level research and advocacy around the reauthorization of federal child nutrition programs (CNR). I have been privy to the interactions between city and federal agencies and politicians, and to the role of researchers and advocates in the shaping of policy. I have witnessed the influence of industry in political discussions where it does not belong, and been inspired by the power of collaborative work. 

As a Tisch Scholar at the Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education, and Policy at Teachers College, Columbia University, and a Food Policy intern in the Office of the Mayor of New York City, I have had the privilege of working with the New York City Alliance for Child Nutrition Reauthorization (NYC4CNR). NYC4CNR is a unique alliance of stakeholders in New York City, all working toward common goals in a policy area where such collaboration has not been the norm.     

As part of my work with NYC4CNR, I have learned about the discussions other groups are having about this legislation around the country. It is fascinating to see how the conversation around child nutrition programs has shifted over time. The National School Lunch Program was originally passed with broad bipartisan support, as a way for farmers to sell their surplus products, and for low-income children to get a meal at school. Unfortunately, these programs no longer enjoy the same bipartisan, above-reproach reputation. Today the conversation is centered on dismantling the science-based nutrition standards put in place under the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The beneficiaries of this kind of debate are not the hard-working school food service employees, nor the children who eat school meals, but instead a small subset of food companies who stand to benefit from a rollback of nutrition standards. Instead of talking about how we can feed more kids, or cultivate food literacy and healthy eating habits in schools, we are talking about how we can appease the frozen foods and processed meat industries. 

I recently had the opportunity to attend the School Nutrition Association’s (SNA’s) annual Legislative Action Conference in Washington, D.C. SNA is an organization that represents school nutrition directors as well as industry members, and they are calling for rollbacks of the nutrition standards in place under the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. Specifically, they propose rolling back sodium and whole grain requirements, and eliminating the requirement for ½ cup fruit or vegetable in a reimbursable meal. Though the challenges school nutrition directors face in implementing the nutrition standards are real, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has said that 93% of school districts have successfully implemented them, and that no school district has been penalized by USDA for not adhering to the standards.  Additionally, multiple studies have shown that plate waste has not increased since implementation of the new standards, and that fruit and vegetable consumption has increased[1][2].     

In short, the standards are working. So, why is SNA still calling for rollbacks? I found the answer at my lunch table at the Legislative Action Conference: industry membership. At my table of ten, two were there representing food industry companies. My neighbor, a charming conversationalist, was there on behalf of the potato division of ConAgra foods. Our afternoon refreshment break was sponsored by PepsiCo, and included only soda (no food or water to be found). Attendees at the conference were greeted by signs advertising sponsorship from such companies as Domino’s Pizza. We also spent over an hour listening to a presentation by Dr. Robert Heaney, a researcher on osteoporosis and a paid dairy industry consultant, on how the Level 2 and 3 sodium requirements under HHFKA not only lacked evidence, but would likely hurt children. My neighbor, of ConAgra, asked me after the presentation whether or not Mr. Heaney’s statements lined up with what I was learning at Columbia. I explained to him that they did not, and pointed out that I would take any scientific analysis from a paid industry consultant with a grain of salt.

After a day at the SNA conference, I headed to the other side of town to attend the 2015 Anti-Hunger Policy Conference, organized by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) and Feeding America. Highlights of my day included hearing from Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack on the critical role of child nutrition programs and SNAP, and Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services Kevin Concannon on how the USDA has offered support and flexibility to school districts to help them offer healthier foods to children. I also attended a session focused on CNR, which featured key congressional staffers from both parties, alongside USDA officials. Though panelists acknowledged the critical role—and bipartisan history—of these programs, they told the group that in Congress, the conversation is unlikely to be about expanding access, but rather about efficiency and streamlining, or, in other words, budget cuts. Denise Forte, Minority Staff Director for the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, explained that while there is room to make progress with advocacy, the CNR process will likely be about stopping the bleeding from cuts, rather than about feeding more children healthy food. 

While the discourse I heard at the SNA and Anti-Hunger Policy conferences was at times disheartening, I left D.C. feeling hopeful. In our New York City delegation’s conversations with legislators during the Anti-Hunger Policy Conference Day on the Hill, I saw the beauty of the NYC4CNR alliance in action. Advocates in the anti-hunger field spoke passionately about nutrition standards in school meals, and public health nutritionists made compelling arguments for programs like SNAP. As Sister Simone Campbell told conference attendees, “the challenge for some of us is to believe change can happen.” The truth is that the problems we are worried about—like hunger, and inequitable access to quality food—are solvable. We have excellent government programs that address these issues every day, and that demonstrate that government works.

 


NYC4CNR: Goals & Priorities

The members of NYC4CNR are united around the goals of ending child hunger and food
insecurity; ensuring access to high-quality, nutritious, locally grown foods; reducing
obesity and diet-related diseases; and strengthening regional farm and food economies. 

 We are asking for a strong Child Nutrition Reauthorization that:

  1. Ensures that every child has year-round access to high quality food.
  2. Maintains nutrition standards and supports nutrition education.
  3. Increases program resources and technical assistance.


    Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization: 6 Key Federal Programs

Child Nutrition Reauthorization is the federal process that occurs every five years, and provides an opportunity to change existing legislation governing the federal child
nutrition programs that provide low-income children and families with nutritious food.

Federal programs included in the legislation are: Special Supplemental Nutrition Program
for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), National School Lunch Program (NSLP), Child
and Adult Care Feeding Program (CACFP), School Breakfast Program (SBP), Summer
Food Service Program (SFSP), and the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program.

 

 

[1]Schwartz Marlene B., Henderson Kathryn E., Read Margaret, Danna Nicole, and Ickovics Jeannette R.. Childhood Obesity. -Not available-, ahead of print. doi:10.1089/chi.2015.0019.

[2] “Impact of the New U.S. Department of Agriculture School Meal Standards on Food Selection, Consumption, and Waste,” Juliana F.W. Cohen, Scott Richardson, Ellen Parker, Paul J. Catalano, Eric B. Rimm, American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 46(4):388-394, online March 4, 2014

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