Be careful what you ask for

Published in FSD Update

SNA is finding out that not everything you think you want, you actually like when you get it.

Several years ago, I attended my first Legislative Action Committee (LAC) conference. This was before the 2010 reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, which put into place the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA). SNA’s policy paper that year asked for many things that became part of the HHFKA. Now, it seems like many of the things SNA was lobbying for are the very things it’s asking the USDA to eliminate.

Janey Thornton, deputy under secretary for the USDA’s Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, expressed this frustration at this year’s LAC. Thornton’s point was essentially: “You asked us to do things. We did them. Now, you’re asking why the federal government is doing this to me.”

Here’s one example I remember from my pre-HHFKA trip to Congress. One of the main points of emphasis that year was that there needed to be a consistent standard for what a reimbursable meal was, so that a child in Oklahoma would be served the same nutritionally balanced meal as a student in Maine. That didn’t mean the meals in Oklahoma and Maine had to be the same, just that there needed to be a baseline of what constituted a reimbursable meal. Industry representatives were also emphasizing this, so that they didn’t have to create as many different product specifications, which they said drove up costs.

Flash-forward to 2012, when the HHFKA was implemented, and this very thing was behind what so many child nutrition directors were grumbling about. They said the standards imposed by the USDA were too strict and inhibited menu creativity. I happen to agree with that statement. But the USDA simply had heard what SNA and its members were asking for and gave it to them.

It’s important to remember that during the drafting of the HHFKA, Congress was working on healthcare reform, and I think it’s safe to bet that for most members of Congress, school meals wasn’t top of mind. I’d also be willing to bet that most members of Congress aren’t all that familiar with how the federal meals program works in the first place.

Yes, that’s what LAC is all about, getting the word out about school meals and getting proper funding for the program. But in 2010, Congress was too busy with healthcare reform. Congressmen and women heard the bullet points of what SNA was asking for and passed that off to the USDA to craft the details. That’s what the USDA did.

The rules aren’t perfect. Yes, there were things that could have been done that might have prevented some of the heartache and complaining—namely including current child nutrition professionals in the discussion. But HHFKA mirrors what school foodservice leaders asked for.

So be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it. And you might realize you really didn’t want it in the first place.