USDA, SNA strike optimistic tone at school show

School Nutrition Association, child nutrition

Against the backdrop of dissent and a politically charged debate over changing regulations, more than 6,500 child nutrition professionals met in Boston for the School Nutrition Association’s (SNA) Annual National Conference (ANC).

It’s no secret that lately there has been disagreement and hurt feelings between SNA, the USDA and the White House. A meeting between key players, including SNA member Wendy Weyer, from Seattle Public Schools, Sam Kass, executive director of Let’s Move!, and Tom Vilsack, USDA secretary, took place the week before ANC. Little was published about the meeting but several members involved said it was a step in the right direction.

Patricia Montague, CEO of SNA, said she was optimistic that the flexibilities in regulations the association was asking for would come to fruition, even against a veto threat from the White House should legislation come across the president’s desk containing changes to the rules. “We’re optimistic,” Montague said. “That’s what our members are. We’re hopeful that we’ll get some type of flexibility; we’re not sure what that will look like.”

Politico reported that Kass was declined an invitation to “rally the troops” at ANC this year, after being welcomed with open arms and adoring fans in previous years. Janey Thornton, the USDA’s deputy under secretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, was on hand, when she spoke at the second general session.

“I realize that this has not been easy. But you’ve worked and worked together to move forward. I’ve visited schools across the country and witnessed changes that 10 years ago would not have been possible,” she said.

“I recognize that there have been challenges with all the changes taking place in the past couple of years, including the increase of food prices,” she continued. “These changes have been easier for some than others. Those that believe they will never succeed are likely setting themselves up for failure. Let’s concentrate on all of the positive things going on and continue to work together to share the best practices like we’ve always done. Be the cheerleader for each other.”

Thornton, along with other members of the USDA, stressed how important operator feedback was to the organization.

In a session on the new Smart Snacks guidelines, USDA representatives Julie Brewer and Eileen Ferruggiaro, said the final final rule regarding Smart Snacks (currently there is only an interim final rule in place) will not be released this school year. Brewer and Ferruggiaro said that was to enable directors to share their experiences with the new regs with the USDA so that modifications or flexibility could be addressed in the final final rule. “We are listening to what you have to say and the experiences you have implementing this,” the women said.

They also noted that the rule was not intended to make school foodservice directors food police. Under the new guidelines, all foods sold in schools during school hours are regulated, even if they are not offered by school foodservice departments. “Meeting Smart Snacks rules is the responsibility of everyone in the school building, not just foodservice,” they said, adding that for the time being, foodservice departments will not be monetarily fined for violations of the rules from non-foodservice groups.

A few other highlights from the conference included:

  • About half of the states have said there will be no exemptions for fundraisers from rules regarding Smart Snacks.
  • The local wellness policy rule should be published early next year.
  • One Texas foodservice department teamed up with its DECA club to develop a school lunch marketing plan at its high school.
  • It costs about $9,000 for a tractor-trailer of produce to go from California to the East Coast.
  • Make sure you cut into some of your produce when it comes in. That way you can inspect for internal damage.
  • When it came to items directors were looking for on the show floor, hot, prepackaged protein breakfast entrées and à la carte items that met Smart Snack guidelines were the two hot topics.

Several SNA members were also honored at the show, including:

  • Lauren Tend, from Huntington Beach Union High School, in California, with the 2014 Outstanding Director of the Year Award;
  • Gail Gramling, of Torrance Unified School District, in California, with the National Louise Sublette Award of Excellence in School Nutrition;
  • Brenda Thompson, of Raymond Cree Middle School, in Palm Springs, Calif., with the National Heart of the Program Award; and
  • Stacy Sagowitz, R.D., president of School Nutrition Services, in California, with the 2014 National Industry Member of the Year.