School Nutrition Association seeks breakfast commodities in farm bill | TSLN.com

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School Nutrition Association seeks breakfast commodities in farm bill

To the long list of groups with an interest in the next farm bill, add the School Nutrition Association, which represents school food service directors and the companies that make school foods.

SNA, which met in Washington this week, has long complained that the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act did not provide enough money to pay for the increased costs of the more expensive foods required under that law. The act provided an additional 6 cents in reimbursement for school lunch, but no additional reimbursement for school breakfast, even though USDA estimated the extra cost would be 27 cents per breakfast.

When the act expired in 2015, SNA asked Congress to provide more money in a reauthorization of child nutrition programs. But Congress is so divided no agreement on child nutrition reauthorization was reached in either 2015 or 2016. Prospects for reauthorization are perhaps even worse in this Congress, and the school meals programs continue on auto-pilot through the appropriations process.

SNA's 2017 position papers show that the group has decided to ask Congress to use the farm bill to direct USDA to buy commodities for school breakfast, as it does for school lunch through a program called USDA Foods. The cost would be 6 cents per breakfast and a total of $140 million per year.

“With research affirming the importance of breakfast to academic success, school nutrition programs have worked to increase student access to healthy breakfasts.” School Nutrition Association

As SNA says in its position paper, USDA already provides schools with purchases of domestic agricultural products including fruits and vegetables, lean protein, low-fat dairy products, whole grains and oils. Those foods make up 15 to 20 percent of the foods served as school lunch.

The schools can use the foods for school breakfast, but "a state's USDA Foods entitlement is based only on the number of lunches served and does not account for the more than 14 million breakfasts served each school day."

SNA says that buying more commodities would help both students and farmers, including those that grow fruits and vegetables on a smaller scale and sell locally.

Research shows that students who eat school breakfast perform better on standardized tests and have improved classroom behavior and attendance.

USDA requires that nearly 60 percent of the foods purchased must be in surplus and uses the program to help stabilize prices. SNA also noted that the schools have already "dramatically increased purchases of fresh fruits and vegetables through regionally-based produce vendors, to the benefit of local growers and students."

"With research affirming the importance of breakfast to academic success, school nutrition programs have worked to increase student access to healthy breakfasts," SNA said. "Expanding USDA foods to support the school breakfast program would sustain this effort, ease the burden on financially strapped meal programs and advance USDA's mission of supporting America's farmers."

When SNA members went to Capitol Hill this week to meet with lawmakers, they brought up the breakfast commodities proposal in addition to their opposition to a House Republican proposal to block-grant school lunches, and made requests to appropriators to provide relief from sodium and whole-grain requirements and for more flexibility in running the program.

At the SNA meeting, an hour-and-a-half panel discussion labeled as a "fireside chat" focused on prospects for the farm bill.

Chuck Conner, a former Agriculture deputy secretary and Capitol Hill aide who is now president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, noted that there would be budget challenges with the farm bill because the cotton and dairy sectors need help. But he advised SNA, "Don't get carried away but also ask for what you need."

Generous farm bills have been passed in the worst budget times, Conner added.

Conner also said that a new administration has a "two-year window" to accomplish its agenda and that the Trump administration has "lost many months" on agriculture because it has taken so long to confirm Sonny Perdue, President Donald Trump's nominee.

Former Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D., said the argument can be made that the farm bill keeps American food costs down, and that the national security argument in favor of assuring a domestic food supply can be invoked.

William Hoagland, a former Capitol Hill budget official and USDA official now with the Bipartisan Policy Center, said school equipment might be added to the infrastructure bill. If any piece of legislation is likely to get done, it would be a combination of tax reform and infrastructure, Hoagland added.

Dan Glickman, the Agriculture secretary in the Clinton administration who also served as a Democratic House member from Wichita, Kan., said that SNA should look toward the health and medical community as allies in the quest for healthier school meals because obesity has led to poor health conditions and expensive treatment.

Between health, nutrition and agriculture "you are the bridge," Glickman said.

Glickman also said that in the last 60 days he has sensed that the American people want members of Congress to work together.

"Let them know you are watching and will evaluate them in 17 months," Glickman told the SNA members as they headed to Capitol Hill.

–The Hagstrom Report