A unicorn in the room

A politician gets it right at the opening session of the School Nutrition Association’s conference.

By Becky Schilling, Editor

I was pleasantly surprised at the opening session of the School Nutrition Association’s (SNA) annual conference yesterday. Every year the association allows a political representative to stage to give some opening comments and welcome attendees to the city. Most of the time, these comments are nothing but fluff and pleasantry. That wasn’t the case with this year’s representative: Congressman Jim McGovern, from Massachusetts.

You see, McGovern actually knew about school nutrition programs and could speak intelligently on them. Many times when you go to a conference, and not just for school nutrition, speakers do a quick Google search about the non-commercial foodservice industry and normally end up equating everything to restaurants. McGovern was the rare speaker—and politician at that—who knows about the ins and outs of child nutrition. 

McGovern is on the House Agricultural Committee and has been a big advocate for ending hunger in this country—just check out his homepage and one of the first things you’ll see is a campaign to end hunger. Clearly, it’s McGovern’s job to understand the issues that come forth for his committee. But he’s taken it further than a cursory knowledge and has become passionate about school nutrition.

McGovern knew the actual rules and regulations set forth in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. He knew about SNAP cuts. He knew about the challenges going on with asking for waivers and flexibility with some of the new regulations that will start this coming school year. And he wasn’t afraid to say the things he believed in, even when they went against his own party. (McGovern is a Democrat and criticized President Obama for promising to roll back SNAP cuts, which then didn’t happen.)

Here are a few tidbits from McGovern’s talk:

  • When it comes to school feeding, we need to put our money where our mandates are.
  • We need to integrate nutrition education into the classroom
  • We need universal breakfast at the bell
  • Summer feeding participation—currently around 18%—needs to be higher
  • Tell you success stories
  • I believe hunger is political. We have the food. We have money. We just have to figure out how to do it. When it comes to funding a war halfway around the world, we are willing to spend tons of money on it. When it comes to feeding kids halfway down the block we have empty pockets.
  • Be careful with asking for flexibility on the guidelines as some members in Congress will use that dismantle to good things the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act has brought. 

It was a real pleasure to hear a speaker who isn’t part of the industry be so well versed on the issues. The fact that the speaker was a politician made it that much more impressive.