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House Committee Addresses School Nutrition Programs

On March 4, the House Education and Labor Committee held a hearing on improving nutrition and food safety in school breakfast and lunch programs.

Chair George Miller (D-CA) said, “Federal nutrition programs are intended to provide children with healthful food to eat at school. During the last reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act [P.L. 108-265] and National School Lunch Act [P.L.101-47], we required meals to be in line with the Department of Health and Human Services’ Dietary Guidelines. We looked to sound nutritional science that suggested the incorporation of healthy grains into the school meal program and we expanded the availability of fruits and vegetables. We also asked schools and communities to establish local wellness policies, looking at the role of nutrition standards and physical activity in creating a healthy learning environment for our students. It is becoming more clear, however, that the declining federal investment in school nutrition programs has made it harder and harder for schools to provide healthy and nutritious meals that children want to eat…We know that when children don’t have enough nutritious food to eat, it can have serious negative effects not just on their health but on many aspects of their lives, including their ability to learn. We can’t expect children to go to school on an empty stomach and still be able to succeed academically.”

Ranking Member Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-CA) said, “Our goal with the federal child nutrition programs, particularly in recent years, has been to promote nutrition and wellness while enhancing program and financial integrity. In 2004, the president signed into law a child nutrition reform package that included key reforms to accomplish these goals. That legislation included important steps to strengthen nutrition programs and improve their effectiveness for America’s most vulnerable children. During the last reauthorization, it was a top priority to address the health crisis of childhood obesity, which has reached epidemic proportions in this country. In response, we proposed reforms that would strike the right balance between encouraging healthy environments while preserving local control for states, communities, and schools. For example, the bill’s establishment of local wellness policies to promote healthy choices and physical activity was intended to complement the larger focus of the federal child nutrition programs, which is to combat hunger and food insecurity while ensuring eligible children receive nutrition assistance…Child nutrition is an area that is constantly evolving because of changing needs among those who are disadvantaged and rely on nutritional assistance, as well as enhanced knowledge about health and wellness.”

Mary Hill, president of the School Nutrition Association (SNA), said, “In the last year or two, most of the attention with regard to child nutrition has focused on the key issue of nutrition standards. It is a two-part challenge: how to implement the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans into the meal program, and what standards to apply to so-called ‘competitive foods’ sold outside of the meal program, whether in the cafeteria or sold down the hall in vending machines. SNA is deeply committed to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and we believe that they should be applied to all foods and beverages sold in school. Years ago, we successfully petitioned the Congress to apply the guidelines to school meals. Since 1983, however, we have been trying in vain to amend the law and provide the secretary of Agriculture with the authority needed to regulate the sale of all foods and beverages sold on the school campus.”

Ms. Hill added, “USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] currently reimburses local schools $2.47 for every ‘free’ lunch provided to a child with income below 130 percent of the poverty line [$27,560 for a family of four]…less than the price of a latte at the neighborhood coffee shop. The school food service authority needs the revenue from the sale of all beverages and foods sold on campus to ‘balance the books’ and make the program work for all children. Consistent nutrition standards must therefore be provided for all foods and beverages sold in the school in order to protect the financial and nutritional integrity of the school nutrition program.” Ms. Hill continued, “SNA believes that we need to craft a science-based, practical, nutrition standard that applies throughout the school and throughout the entire country. The children in California need the same nutrients for healthy development that are needed by the children in South Dakota and Florida. Schools have a critical role to play in the fight against obesity. We must not, however, craft a standard that could undermine the financial status of many local programs thereby jeopardizing their service to children, including low-income children.”

Kenneth Hecht, executive director of California Food Policy Advocates, said, “Over the years, USDA gradually has improved the nutrition quality of commodities: It has eliminated food items high in fat and sodium and sugar; it has added healthy items whole grain items, for example, and developed a small but promising program to bring fresh fruit and vegetables to schools. And numerous items have been retained while their nutrition quality has improved: for example, ground beef is leaner, more cheese is low fat, canned fruit, and vegetables contain less sugar and sodium.” Mr. Hecht continued, “Recent communications with USDA underline the agency’s continuing commitment to offer school districts food that is responsive to obesity prevention. Still, there are numerous opportunities to strengthen the commodities program’s capacity to prevent obesity and food insecurity…First and foremost, of course, is the insufficiency of the reimbursement. Healthy foods cost more to purchase, store, prepare, monitor, and assess. The school food directors we know, if provided adequate reimbursement, would jump at the chance to turn out the healthiest meals. A second strategy is to provide financial incentives a rebate, if you will to schools to spend more of their entitlement dollars on fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains and other healthy foods. Third, there should be support for training: school food staff need to understand the nutrition crisis and learn how to help turn it around. USDA regional staff and state agency staff have lost funding over the years so that they are unable to provide leadership, training, and monitoring to ensure good nutrition quality. Not least, USDA meal nutrition standards should be aligned with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans on an accelerated schedule; interim steps, as outlined in USDA’s memorandum dated December 17, 2007, should be vigorously promoted, and monitoring of lunch and breakfast should be broader and more frequent.”

Kate Houston, deputy undersecretary of Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services (FNS) at the USDA, said, “FNS has launched an aggressive initiative to improve the nutritional quality of its commodity program. Schools participating in the NSLP [National School Lunch Program] today have access to the widest choice of healthy commodity foods in history. Over the past two decades, we have worked to reduce the levels of fat, sodium, and sugar. We now offer schools more than 180 choices of quality products, including whole grains and low-fat foods. FNS also continues to promote the Healthier US School Challenge and support implementation of local wellness policies as part of its broad strategy to reduce obesity and improve the nutritional health and well-being of children. To ensure a strong future for the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs, FNS is working hard to improve program participation among children from all income levels, and we are working with schools to strengthen program integrity by assisting schools in improving the accuracy of meal counting and claiming. In particular, FNS is focusing efforts on improving participation in the School Breakfast Program, where a significant disparity exists between the average daily participation in the School Breakfast Program and the National School Lunch Program. While we all recognize that providing nutritious meals in a healthy school nutrition environment is important, school children represent a particularly vulnerable population, and first and foremost, USDA, along with our partners at the federal, state, and local levels, has a responsibility to ensure school meals are safe. We are proud of our many efforts to ensure the safety and improve the quality of school meals, and many of these efforts could not have been possible without the School Nutrition Association and the many school food service professionals who give their very best to provide nutritious meals in our schools each day.”

Kathleen Corrigan, director of Food and Nutrition Services of Mt. Diablo Unified School Districts (CA); Penny Parham, administrative director of Miami-Dade County Public Schools Department of Food and Nutrition; and Dora Rivas, executive director of Food and Child Nutrition Services of the Dallas Independent School District (TX), also testified.

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