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Wednesday, May 18, 2016

USDA Official: Reauthorize Child Nutrition Programs So They Benefit Children


Posted by Kevin Concannon, Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services

It may seem like common sense for child nutrition programs to benefit children, but some see it differently today.

Nationwide, schools have made the lunchroom a healthy environment. In fact, in only the second school year of full implementation of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA), over 98 percent of schools participating are already meeting the healthier meal standards.  Students are eating more fruits and vegetables during the school day and more low-income children are eating nutritious breakfasts and lunches at school. And data show obesity rates for some children are leveling off. With all the success of HHFKA, now is not the time to intentionally go backwards on nutrition standards in healthier school meals and to block access to these meals for millions of children.

In January, the Senate Agriculture Committee unanimously took a bipartisan step toward reauthorizing critical child nutrition programs like school lunch and breakfast. Rather than diminish the progress we’ve already made, the Senate’s bill ensures these improvements to our children’s diets will continue.  The bipartisan Senate bill represents a compromise that allows us to stop rehashing old debates and secures a healthier future for our kids. It represents a win for children, parents, schools, and our country’s future.

In contrast, the House Education and Workforce Committee’s bill aims to weaken one of the most successful aspects of HHFKA. The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which allows high-poverty schools or districts to serve all students free meals without any burdensome paperwork, has been lauded for increasing student participation, reducing administrative burdens and costs on schools, cutting down on paperwork for busy parents, and improving program integrity. But the House bill would place new limitations on the number of schools in high-poverty areas that qualify for CEP, forcing many high-poverty schools to lose eligibility. This would cause school meal participation to fall dramatically, and schools would be forced to spend more time on paperwork and less time focusing on feeding kids. And some children who need free meals may slip through the cracks.

The House bill would also roll back the school meal nutrition standards and gut the Smart Snacks in School rule, which ensures that all snack foods and beverages for sale to students during the school day are nutritious. Under the House bill, school vending machines could go back to selling soda and junk food.  Schools have already invested time and effort into making the switch to healthier options.  The snack food industry has innovated and developed hundreds of new products that meet the requirements and are popular with students.  Now is not the time to regress.

We are proud of the way the school meals program provides flexibility for schools to tailor the programs to their local needs. For example, schools design their own menus and have the ability to serve items they know their students prefer.  They can also choose options like CEP and serve afterschool snacks and suppers if they are the right fit for their local community. However, in the name of local flexibility, some are considering a proposal to convert the school nutrition programs into a block grant. That is a very dangerous idea. Not only would it put further strain on state and local school districts’ budgets, but it would jeopardize children’s access to quality, healthy school meals no matter where they live.
Instead, we are working with schools and districts to ensure their programs meet their needs. One example is the Team Up For School Nutrition Success training. Along with the Institute of Child Nutrition, we offer all state agencies the opportunity to host local events to provide tailored technical assistance, support, and best practices for schools in administering successful meals programs. During the training, schools cover topics like menu planning, financial management, procurement, meal presentation and appeal, as well as youth engagement tactics and strategies to reduce plate waste. Schools have the opportunity to learn from each other in order to make positive strides toward providing healthy school environments with financial stability and strong student participation. With all these strides being made, now is not the time to eliminate the successful partnership between the federal government and state agencies, putting further strain on state and local school districts’ budgets.

It would be unwise to roll back the school meal standards and I urge Congress to stay the course for sake of our children. USDA looks forward to working with Congress, schools, parents and communities to continue to improve the health and wellbeing of the next generation.