I am just back from the summer ASFSA national conference in Nashville. It was clearly one the largest and most successful conferences ASFSA has had, and the event underscored again the grass-roots strength of the segment many credit with having established the real beginning of a national foodservice market in the U.S.
In my view, the highlight of the program was probably the address by former Senator George McGovern. Long a staunch supporter of school nutrition programs, McGovern is on the stump now to promote the international school lunch program he and former Senator Bob Dole would like to see expanded into a major foreign policy initiative by the U.S.
On the practical side of things, though, the speaker that many in the audience were most interested to hear from was Eric Bost, the Bush Administration’s new Undersecretary for USDA’s Food and Nutrition Services division (FNS).
Since his appointment, Bost has avoided interviews with the press and offered few specifics to signal the direction the Administration will take on school nutrition issues. While it was a positive sign to see Bost appear on the conference stage, he unfortunately did not take that opportunity to acknowledge that many of these issues are fully on the political and legislative table right now.
Instead, he filled his brief remarks largely with anecdotes about his family, offering "feel good" but largely unspecific opinions about the positive impact nutrition programs make on the lives of children.
Many of us in the press were looking forward to questioning Mr. Bost directly in the press conference scheduled to follow his address. That press conference, however, was suddenly cancelled due to "pressing Washington business," so we are still waiting to learn whether Mr. Bost will be a proactive supporter of child nutrition, or a passive administrator of the status quo.
Disappointed, I found myself standing a few minutes later in the main registration area, where photos of past ASFSA presidents were mounted in a historical display. Not many associations continue to acknowledge the contributions of past leaders to the degree ASFSA does, and you cannot look seriously at those faces without feeling a bit humbled by their pioneering efforts to establish the programs we now take for granted.
Early leaders like Constance Hart; Mary deGarmo Bryan; Thelma Flanagan; Gerald Ramsey; Louise Sublette. Others from more recent ASFSA history–people like Josephine Martin; Gene White; Mary Nix; Jane Wynn; Thelma Becker; outgoing USDA Undersecretary Shirley Watkins; and many others.
Suddenly I found myself wondering–what would these individuals ask Mr. Bost if they had my role as a journalist, and my relative freedom from the Washington, D.C. realpolitic in which school foodservice must constantly be engaged?
Are you troubled by the increasing dependence cash-hungry school principals and systems have on income derived from the sale of food and snacks that compete directly with National School Nutrition programs? If you see competitive foods as a serious problem, are you willing to aggressively seek the Congressional support necessary to let your department regulate such activities so they do not undermine nutrition education and programs?
Do you see Federal support of school nutrition primarily as an educational and school-support function, or as a welfare-support function? If the former, what is your vision for what the program can accomplish and how it can be improved? And if the latter, aren’t you concerned that U.S. schoolchildren–from every economic background–are showing an increased prevalence of diabetes, obesity and other nutrition-related ills?
What initiatives would you like to see in the food safety area both in terms of commodity programs and manufactured meal components? Given the justifiable sensitivity the public has to food safety incidents in schools, are you among those who see food safety education as important enough to make it part of the educational mission of school nutrition programs?
In your remarks, you said you want to be proactive in linking U.S. agriculture programs to school nutrition. Does this mean you will actively lobby Congress to renew or expand soon-to-expire "bonus commodities" provisions that enhance USDA’s ability to purchase commodities for school nutrition programs?
The point is, school nutrition will always remain issue-oriented, and should be much more than a federally-managed welfare program. If the Bush Administration is as serious about supporting public education as it claimed to be during the election campaign, Mr. Bost has a real opportunity to demonstrate that commitment by helping FNS to take a proactive stance on the school nutrition issues facing USDA.