Vilsack, nutrition advocates praise child nutrition reauthorization bill |

Vilsack, nutrition advocates praise child nutrition reauthorization bill

Bowl of healthy fresh fruit salad on wooden background. Top view.
Baiba Opule |

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and most nutrition advocates today praised the bipartisan Senate child nutrition reauthorization bill released Monday, while the United Fresh Produce Association said it was disappointed the bill creates a slight opening for canned and frozen fruits and vegetables in the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program.

The Senate Agriculture Committee has scheduled a markup Wednesday on the bill, which covers school meals, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, and commodity distribution programs.

The bill is not expected to change the amount of money spent on children nutrition programs, which is about $33 billion on mandatory programs and $8 billion in discretionary spending on the WIC program, but it tweaks many programs to come up with more money for some programs, including summer meals for children when school is not in session.

The money saved does not amount to taking from one program to help another, but making tweaks to administration of programs to make them more efficient.

“This bill reaffirms the importance of doubling the amount and variety of fruits and vegetables in school meals and ensuring that all school meals include fruits and vegetables.” Tom Stenzel, United Fresh president

“We didn’t go to the ATM, we picked up our couch pillows” to find the money, one Senate aide said.

On the sidelines of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Summit here, Vilsack told The Hagstrom Report that Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., have “preserved the important reforms and changes [in school meals] under the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act” while providing “limited” flexibility the schools in a few areas.

Vilsack added that he was particularly pleased that the bill maintains the half-cup fruit and vegetable requirement for school meals and that schools will be able to continue moving away from meals that were “too focused on fat, sugar and sodium.”

While the bill maintains the fruit and vegetable requirement, it does make a change to the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, which serves produce free to students outside of the normal time frames for the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs. Most of those schools have a high percentage of students eligible for free and reduced price meals.

Under the bill, schools that have not participated in the program will be allowed to apply to use “all forms” of fruits and vegetables, meaning canned and frozen as well as fresh, if they can demonstrate hardship to obtain or prepare the fresh produce.

Those schools are still supposed to transition to all fresh produce and there is a provision so that schools that do not ask for the waiver will not be penalized in their applications.

The provision was definitely a compromise because Stabenow has said publicly the fruit and vegetable program should remain purely fresh.

The United Fresh Produce Association, which has fought hard to keep the program purely fresh products, expressed disappointment in the provision, but it was muted.

“While we are disappointed that the bill changes the highly effective and very popular Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP), we appreciate the committee’s commitment to maintain the goal of the FFVP to provide students with fresh fruits and vegetables as snacks,” United Fresh President Tom Stenzel said in a statement today.

But Stenzel also noted that the bill “protects healthy school meals, including access to more fruits and vegetables, benefitting 31 million children everyday.”

He said United Fresh also supports the provision that would promote school salad bars.

“This bill reaffirms the importance of doubling the amount and variety of fruits and vegetables in school meals and ensuring that all school meals include fruits and vegetables,” Stenzel said.

Margot Wootan, the director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, praised Roberts and Stabenow for developing the compromise bill and endorsed it.

“Given all of the aggressive lobbying against school nutrition over the past few years, it’s remarkable that the Senate bill is as strong a way forward as it is,” Wootan said. “I hope that as the draft legislation wends its way through both houses of Congress, it can be managed with the same bipartisan spirit that has characterized the school lunch program since its inception in 1946.”

The agreement preserves the next sodium reduction requirement for school lunch and breakfast, “which is critical given the strong and consistent evidence that supports sodium reduction as a way to prevent high blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke,” Wootan said.

But she also endorsed the two-year extension on the deadline for schools to comply with the second sodium reduction target because it “would give schools and food service manufacturers more time to meet the second sodium target.”

“Importantly, it would provide a date certain for companies and food service manufacturers to work toward for reaching moderate sodium levels in school meals,” she said.

The bill also would require a study of implementation of the second sodium target before the third (and final) sodium reduction target goes into effect in school year 2022-23.

Erin McGuire, policy director of the National Farm to School Network, said the Farm to School provision is “a huge win for kids, farmers and communities nationwide.”

The retired generals and admirals of Mission: Readiness, who campaigned for healthier school meals, said the bill “maintains the healthy school meal standards” and urged quick passage of the bill by the committee and the full Senate.

“Nearly one in three young adults ages 17 to 24 are too heavy to serve in the military,” the group said.

In a statement issued later, Vilsack said, “The Senate’s bill is a win for children, parents, schools and for our country’s future. It maintains our commitment to science-based nutrition standards for school meals and protects the advancements we have made in children’s health since the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Rather than diminish the progress made since the changes were implemented in 2012, the Senate’s bill ensures progress will continue improving our children’s diets, and it promises to end partisan battles about the future of our kids.”

Vilsack continued, “The bill is consistent with the approach taken at USDA all along, which is to provide reasonable flexibility for schools as they continue transitioning to the updated standards — an approach that is working.”

–The Hagstrom Report