Senate Aggies begin debate on child nutrition programs

The Senate Agriculture Committee April 10 launched their effort to reauthorize the child nutrition programs with a hearing.

Chairman Pat Roberts, R-KS, and Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow, D-MI, led the committee through questioning of several witnesses on details of the programs.

“I remind everybody that the last child nutrition reauthorization was completed in 2010,” Roberts said. “So, it is again necessary to take a fresh look to find ways to provide certainty, to reduce administrative redundancies and allow flexibility at the local level to better serve participants and stakeholders.

“School food service directors are constantly stretching every dollar to provide nutritious, affordable meals to their students and they are finding creative new ways to prepare foods in a manner so that students will eat them. Ever-changing rules and reporting makes this far more difficult.

“Considering how many districts there are in the United States, and how different each district is, it is clear that a one-size fits all approach will not work for everyone.”

Roberts listed the array of nutrition programs the proposed legislation touches, including the National School Lunch Program, the National School Breakfast Program, the Summer Food Service Program, the Child and Adult Care Food Program, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children—commonly referred to as WIC.

“There is also the Special Milk Program, the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, the Farm to School Program, and other programs that are part of this process,” Roberts said. “Combined, these programs account for $30 billion in annual mandatory and discretionary spending. So, it is important for us—meaning Congress and more directly this Committee—to review how these programs are working.”

As is her custom, Stabenow emphasized how these programs are working in her home state, that Michigan is leading the way in using Summer EBT and that Michigan was one of the first states to roll out the Community Eligibility Provision that makes it easier for some children to gain access to school meals and reduces paperwork.

“Even though we’ve seen progress, it is vital that we keep moving forward—not backward,” Stabenow said.

Nutrition helps security

Stabenow also discussed how child nutrition is important to national security.

“The National School Lunch Program was created in the 1940s because Gen. Lewis Hershey came before Congress to explain that recruits were being rejected due to malnutrition,” Stabenow said.

“Today, over 750 retired generals and other military leaders are sounding alarm bells again—this time because young adults are too overweight to serve. With 14 percent of children as young as 2 showing signs of obesity, we have to address this issue early and everywhere our children are forming healthy habits.”

Stabenow cited many ways the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service was working hard to address these issues through various programs.

“Our children need healthy lunch options—and they also need wholesome breakfasts and after-school snacks. And we know hunger doesn’t take a break when school is out for the summer,” Stabenow said. “Whether it’s a summer meals program at the YMCA to help prevent the summer learning slide, or a ‘Veggie Van’ driving out to a rural community to ensure children have healthy meals in July—we need to do better.

“We also know many moms and babies rely on WIC to provide healthy food at home during those critical first stages of life. As important developmental milestones continue throughout childhood, we should make sure young children aren’t falling through the cracks either.

“Our child nutrition programs help set our children up for success. We can and should look for ways to streamline paperwork and make it easier for providers to focus on serving healthy meals to kids. However, we can and should do that without backtracking on the progress we have made on healthy food and critical access.”

Testifying at hearing

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Among the witnesses at the hearing was Acting Deputy Under Secretary of Agriculture for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services and Administrator of Food and Nutrition Service Brandon Lipps, who told the committee he held roundtables with program operators to understand their view of the programs.

“We heard first and foremost that school nutrition professionals needed targeted adjustments to existing meal standards to ensure that school meals were both nutritious and appealing to the students being served. That’s why one of Secretary (Sonny) Perdue’s first actions was to extend school meal flexibilities related to flavored milk, whole grains and sodium,” Lipps said. “Making these flexibilities permanent provided the certainty that schools and food manufacturers needed as they continued to implement these standards.”

Lipps also told the committee he heard that the education and training standards for nutrition professionals USDA implemented as a result of the last child nutrition reauthorization put a strain on smaller school districts.

“So we revised the rules, in accordance with the law, to allow small and rural school districts more flexibility in the hiring of new school nutrition program directors. We sought comments on the crediting system for child nutrition programs in an effort to make crediting more simple, fair, and transparent. The input told us that we needed to add food items that were not previously counted toward the meal pattern requirements,” Lipps said.

“I am proud of these successes, but we are still listening, and there is more to be done. We will continue to meet and to work with state agencies, school nutrition professionals, industry, and other stakeholders on a forward-thinking strategy that ensures school nutrition standards are both healthful and practical, while avoiding unnecessary burden and red tape. We do this because local nutrition operators know their student customers and their communities’ best, and must be empowered to meet program standards with reasonable flexibility and common sense.”

Also testifying was Kathryn Larin, director of the Education, Workforce and Income Security section of the Government Accountability Office, who discussed studies GAO has done on payment error rates of the program. A second panel of officials who manage child nutrition programs at the ground level testified on their management.

Similar legislation will be debated in the House Education and Labor Committee, which has jurisdiction over child nutrition in that body.

Larry Dreiling can be reached at 785-628-1117 or [email protected].