Rural Republicans see school meal programs differently
August 4, 2014
Rural Republicans see school meals differently
The differences between Republican senators from the Plains and the rest of the Senate Agriculture Committee over school food became apparent today at a hearing on reauthorization of the school meals program.
The reauthorization is not scheduled until 2015, but the School Nutrition Association, which represents the school food service directors and the companies that make school foods, has called on Congress to roll back some of the provisions in healthier meal rules the Agriculture Department has promulgated under the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.
SNA says children are reacting negatively to some of the foods that have been introduced and are throwing away fruits and vegetables, and the group has called for more flexibility and an end to the requirement that children must be served a half-cup or fruits or vegetables with each meal.
SNA has also backed a provision in the House version of the 2015 Agriculture appropriations bill to require USDA to grant a waiver to any school that said it had lost money in its meals program for six months.
But the real battle seems to be over reauthorization, since the Agriculture appropriations bill does not seem to be moving in either the House or the Senate, and in the eyes of the Agriculture Department the 2014-2015 school year began on July 1.
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Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., started off the hearing by saying that "reversing course is not an option because the health of our children is directly linked to the health of our economy, national security, and long-term sustainability as a nation."
Stabenow also said that on her visits to Michigan schools she has been impressed "to see elementary school students enjoying broccoli and pineapple from salad bars, and students learning about where their food comes from through farm to school garden efforts."
Her statements were backed up by testimony from Betti Wiggins, the executive director of the Office of Food Services in the Detroit Public Schools.
Wiggins said Detroit welcomed the higher nutritional standards in the 2010 act and immediately started implementing the new meals.
Julia Bauscher is the director of school and community nutrition services in the Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville, Ky.
"Virtually all of the students leaving the lunch program are those who can afford to bring their lunch from home or purchase it elsewhere," she said, adding that the number of students paying full price for meals has declined 15 percent nationwide in the past year.
Bauscher said this gives the children who get free or reduced price meals a stigma, and also causes financial problems for the schools.
Democrats asked about issues such as whether the length of the lunch period is causing students to not finish their meals and whether more money for equipment would make it easier to update school menus.
But the questions from Republican Sens. Mike Johanns of Nebraska, John Hoeven of North Dakota, John Thune of South Dakota and John Boozman of Arkansas signaled that they were getting a different message from their white, rural students.
Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb. said that when he visits schools, students frequently criticize the school lunch program, and he suggested to Wiggins that there should be flexibility because places are so different.
"There is nothing like Detroit in my state," Johanns said.
But Wiggins declined to agree, saying that the children of the working poor bring junk food to school, but under community eligibility provisions that allow free lunches she can "embrace" them with healthier meals.
Wiggins also said that Indian reservations in rural states are like "small Detroits" that need good nutrition.
Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D. said he is opposed to the requirement that began July 1 that 100 percent of breads and pasta be whole-grain rich, which means that they are composed of at least 51 percent whole grains. He pressed all the panelists to promise that they would personally eat only whole-grain enriched pasta and bread for the next year.
Thune also said that 200 students at the Pierre Indian Learning Center have sent him a letter that the healthier meal rules prevent them from having traditional foods served once a month.
Wiggins told Hoeven that although she is "a card-carrying member of SNA" and was sitting near its president, she would agree to support flexibility only "if it's reasonable."
After Hoeven left the hearing, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said she wished he would be there to hear her statement, which amounted to a sermon against feeding kids what they want
"Of course kids like non-whole grains, they like sugar even more," Gillibrand said. "It is what they like, their taste buds love it. We have to be the adults in the room. We have to teach them how to eat well for their whole lives."
The school meals program needs more money, Gillibrand said, noting that she had proposed a 35-cent increase in the federal reimbursement for school meals when the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act was passed, rather than the 6-cent increase that was included.
"Everyone would prefer steamed green beans over canned green beans. It is cheaper to serve a chicken nugget, but roasted chicken is a more healthy," she said.
After all the witnesses said they would support an increase in the funding, Gillibrand said, "Let's focus on how we do that."
Edited for length
–The Hagstrom Report