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School nutrition advocates find path to change marked by exhilaration and frustration

I joined about 700 members of the School Nutrition Association, or SNA, in the charge up to Capitol Hill during the group’s annual Legislative Action Conference last month. The experience was exhilarating, satisfying and frustrating, all of which serves as a reminder that democracy is always a work in progress. It requires persistence, perseverance and an understanding of what government for the people is all about.

The mission of the visit was to petition representatives and senators to include four priorities for federal child nutrition programs in the 2007 Farm Bill. One priority is to require a uniform national standard for foods and beverages served in schools in place of the various state and local standards. This includes expanding the time and place rule to apply the same regulations to all foods sold or served on campus throughout the school day. Other priorities are funding a reduced-price school meal pilot, providing 10 cents in USDA commodities for each school breakfast served, and expanding the fresh fruit and vegetable program.

My group included three New Yorkers—a foodservice director, a foodservice company owner and me. As we were finding our way to a congressman’s office in the Cannon House Office Building, I felt momentarily filled with pride in our system of government and its strength and endurance over the past 234 years. Though this may sound like a cliché, there’s little as exhilarating as setting foot in the office buildings that house our elected federal officials and walking the long, stately corridors where millions of other citizens, representing every interest from civil rights and stem cell research to environmental activism and child nutrition, have come to be heard. For decades, we have all felt as though we had a purpose and a responsibility to visit these buildings and that they, in fact, were our buildings housing our “employees” that we elected to represent us in Congress.

The congressman and an aide greeted us with broad grins and gripping handshakes. We explained that we wanted the congressman to support the four priorities, handed him printed materials explaining the issues and thanked him for past support of child nutrition legislation. He asked questions about the uniform national standards priority and made it clear he had concerns about the proposal. We began to explain the facts versus misunderstandings he had acquired about the admittedly controversial standards proposal.

After a few moments of discussion, he announced that he was really interested in health care reform and launched into a 15-minute discourse about his ideas, which did not mention child nutrition. Though his plan may be just what the country needs, I became more incensed with each word he spoke. Our time was running out as we made futile attempts to redirect the discussion. At the meeting’s end, we reminded him that the school nutrition program is one of the nation’s most successful programs and can have an unprecedented and beneficial long-term impact on children’s health and therefore the health of the entire population. Whew! We shook hands and were ushered out of the office.

Afterward, I was haunted by “what ifs.” What if we had interrupted him and said flat-out that we were there to talk about our concerns, not to be a sounding board for his next agenda? What if we had presented the material differently? What if we had been from his district—we are all from neighboring districts. Would he have been as seemingly uninterested? I can’t expect lawmakers to vote the way I wish on every issue, but I do expect them to pay attention to what they’re being told. Otherwise, how would our representatives be able to represent us and our views? The least our group should expect is that congressional leaders who agree to see us will be good hosts, showing courtesy and respect for our time.

Meanwhile, in other parts of Congress, matters were going well. A hearing held by the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry on the federal child nutrition programs was extremely encouraging. Nine senators attended in addition to Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the committee’s chairman. Harkin, along with several bipartisan co-sponsors, reintroduced the Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act, which would expand the “time and place” rule. Reps. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., and Christopher Shays, R-Conn., introduced a companion bill in the House. In later action, Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., introduced a bill to expand summer feeding.

“Overall, there was a lot of enthusiasm for our proposals,” said Marshall Matz, SNA’s legislative counsel. “They were taken seriously and I believe positive action will be taken.”

So the process goes on with its successes, triumphs, setbacks and frustrations. A government for “we the people” is not an easy responsibility. But “easy” is really not the point, is it?

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