July 16, 2019
Much to the surprise of many advocates – including those of us at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) – 2019-2020 may just turn out to be the year that Congress finally rewrites the nation’s outdated child nutrition laws. Congress typically revisits child nutrition programs and policies every five years in a single omnibus bill known as the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act, or “Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization” (CNR) for short. This bill authorizes a litany of programs, including school feeding and farm to school programs.
At the start of the year, most advocates and Hill watchers thought congressional action on a new CNR was only a remote possibility. Within the last few months, however, Congress has shifted its attention to moving it forward this year.
Following House and Senate hearings on child nutrition programs earlier this spring, Members of Congress in both the Senate and the House have been introducing “marker bills” laying out the priorities that they would like to see incorporated into the next CNR. NSAC and our partners (and coalition member organization) at the National Farm to School Network (NFSN) are once again playing key roles in the CNR process, and are currently championing two CNR marker bills: the Farm to School Act of 2019 (S. 2026, H.R. 3562), and the Kids Eat Local Act (H.R. 3220, S. 1817).
In this inaugural post in our newly launched CNR campaign, we unpack the following topics related to child nutrition and farm to school policies:
Those interested in joining the fight for farm to school and local food in schools in the next CNR can check out NSAC’s CNR campaign page, which includes CNR updates and opportunities to take action.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Farm to School Grant Program is a competitive grant program that helps schools connect with local foods (through school feeding programs) and farms, and also supports farm and garden education and programming. Since making its first awards in 2013, the program has received more than 1,900 applications requesting over $141 million in support. With only $5 million in mandatory funding available annually, however, the Farm to School Grant Program has historically been forced to turn away roughly 80 percent of qualified applications.
The Farm to School Act of 2019 was introduced by a bipartisan group of congressional leaders who want to address this disparity between interest in farm to school and available program funds. The bill, sponsored by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT), David Perdue (R-GA), Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Susan Collins (R-ME) and Representatives Marcia Fudge (D-OH) and Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), will expand funding for and the programmatic scope of the highly successful USDA Farm to School Grant Program. The Farm to School Act of 2019 would allow more impactful projects to be realized by increasing annual mandatory funding to $15 million.
The proposed legislation will also: increase the maximum grant award to $250,000; prioritize grant proposals that engage beginning, veteran and socially disadvantaged farmers and serve high-need schools; fully include early care and education sites, summer food service sites and after school programs; and, increase access among Native and tribal schools to traditional foods, especially from tribal producers. The Farm to School Act of 2019 is an updated version of the previously introduced Farm to School Act of 2017.
Institutional markets represent some of the most lucrative and dependable options for America’s family farmers and ranchers – in fact, the Farm to School Census of 2015 estimated that the purchasing powers of school districts alone could generate over $1 billion in local economic activity! Unfortunately, however, they can also be among the most challenging to break into.
The Kids Eat Local Act would introduce a simplified local product specification option, through which schools can specify “locally grown,” “locally raised” or “locally caught” in their procurement language. This change would help to break down barriers between school food purchasers and family farmers by simplifying local purchasing guidelines for school meal programs. The Kids Eat Local Act was introduced by Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Susan Collins (R-ME) and Representatives Chellie Pingree (D-ME), Josh Harder (D-CA), and Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE).
The 2002 Farm Bill included a provision, that was later strengthened in the 2008 Farm Bill, to encourage institutions participating in child nutrition programs to purchase “locally produced foods for school meal programs, to the maximum extent practicable and appropriate.” The statutory provision was necessary to overcome a federal regulation that outlaws geographic preference in government purchasing unless it is specifically authorized.
While that change in statute was an important step forward, in practice, schools have not been able to secure adequate varieties and quantities of local food. The problem is partially due to limits on product specifications and the need for more training and technical assistance. However there are also remaining regulatory burdens. For example, current law does not allow schools to explicitly require “local” or “regional” as a product specification. Although there are workarounds to this rule, the net effect is a system that is confusing and burdensome to school food service providers.
CALL TO ACTION
Members of Congress have started introducing marker bills, and the committees of jurisdiction (Senate Agriculture Committee and House Education and Labor Committee) are beginning to draft the next CNR.
This is your chance to make it easier for schools to source local food and provide funding for innovative projects like school gardens and seasonal vegetable taste-testing that help kids learn where their food comes from.
In order to raise awareness about these important bills and build support for their inclusion in the next CNR, NSAC and NFSN have launched a joint national advocacy campaign. You can learn more about CNR, our advocacy campaign, and ways you can get involved by visiting our CNR campaign page here.
The Farm to School Act of 2019 and the Kids Eat Local Act are NSAC’s core priorities for CNR, but they aren’t the only ones we are supporting or the only options in play. Included in the following sections are several additional proposals and provisions that are also under debate for inclusion in the next CNR.
The 2014 Farm Bill created an Eight State Unprocessed Fruit and Vegetable Pilot Program that allowed participating states to use their USDA Food Entitlement funding to purchase unprocessed and minimally processed produce from non-USDA channels. According to an evaluation done by USDA, the pilots were immensely successfully helping the participating schools increase the use of fresh and unprocessed fruits and vegetables. The pilot program also made it easier for the schools to source fresh foods from local vendors.
Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Representative Peter Welch (D-VT) worked closely with NSAC to get the original pilot program included in the 2014 Farm Bill. Based on the success of the pilot, Senator Wyden and Representative Welch have introduced the Local Food Expansion Act (S.1952, H.R. 3492). This bill re-authorizes and expands the program to include at least 15 participating states and school food authorities. NSAC and NFSN both support these policy changes and will be working with members of Congress to see that they are included in the next CNR.
Another marker bill that NSAC and NFSN are watching closely is the School Food Modernization Act (S.1949, H.R. 3444). This bill would provide guaranteed loans and grants to schools to support equipment upgrades and training for school food personnel. Improved kitchen equipment and facilities is critical to schools’ efforts to move away from “heat and serve” and more toward scratch cooking and the utilization of local food in school meals.
Similar to past CNR debates, nutrition standards will also be a major flash point in the 2019-2020 debate. There have already been attempts from some Members of Congress to further rollback the nutrition standards of the 2010 CNR. Those attempts are being fought against by many in the nutrition community, as well as by other Members of Congress who want to maintain or strengthen improved nutrition standards. How this debate in particular unfolds will, in many ways, determine whether or not a new CNR comes to fruition or not.
Defending the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) will be another potential flash point during the ensuing CNR debate. The changes to CEP in the 2015-2016 House CNR bill, along with a proposal to pilot block granting school nutrition programs, were among the primary reasons the last CNR process fell apart. Anti-hunger and nutrition advocates will be watching closely to see if similar proposals will surface again, and if so, how they might impact the success of the next CNR.
Another central piece of the CNR debate will be the Summer Food Service Program. According to USDA, of the over 30 million students that rely on free and reduced-price meals during the school year, only about 10 percent of those qualify to participate in the summer meal program. A number of different approaches to bridging this gap and increasing access to summer meals for hungry children have already been proposed. Which proposals gain traction as the CNR debate unfolds will be something key for nutrition and anti-hunger advocates to keep an eye on.
Two laws provide the foundation for child nutrition programs: the 1946 National School Lunch Act and the 1966 Child Nutrition Act. Prior to the National School Lunch Act, Congress appropriated federal aid for school lunch programs on an annual basis. Without a guarantee of permanent funding, states and school districts often refrained from investing in kitchens and lunch programs.
The 1946 National School Lunch Act responded to this uncertainty by giving permanent status to the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). Similar to today, participating schools were required to serve lunches that met minimum nutrition standards, serve meals at reduced prices to children who were unable to pay the full price, operate the program on a non-profit basis, and utilize commodity foods from USDA.
Building on the success of the first two decades of NSLP and in response to movements for economic and racial justice, Congress passed the Child Nutrition Act in 1966. The Act authorized increased funding for lunches for low-income students, school kitchen equipment assistance grants, and a pilot school breakfast program, which later became the national School Breakfast Program.
Congress continued to expand the scope of the National School Lunch Act and the Child Nutrition Act in the late 1960s and 70s. During this time, Congress piloted and later permanently authorized the Child and Adult Care Feeding Program (CACFP), the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), and the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). Congress also standardized and reduced eligibility requirements for free and reduced-price school meals and guaranteed reimbursement rates would reflect increased program participation and higher food costs.
After 35 years of expansions and improvements, child nutrition programs suffered major setbacks in the early 1980s. Budget cuts in child nutrition programs resulted in stricter eligibility requirements, reduced reimbursement rates, the elimination of school kitchen equipment assistance grants, and weakened nutrition standards. As a result, schools increasingly turned to processed and frozen foods that were cheaper to procure and prepare.
In the early 1990s, a series of reports on the nutritional inadequacy of school meals prompted Congress to require child nutrition programs to conform to National Dietary Guidelines. Congress also established an initiative to support increased nutrition education. Even today, the debates and disagreements around healthy eating and lifestyles persist.
The last CNR, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, included the most significant changes to child nutrition programs since the 1970s. The 2010 CNR expanded children’s access to nutritious meals and snacks, improved the nutritional quality for school food, supported healthier school environments, and increased nutrition and food system education. It also provided $5 million per year in mandatory funding to the USDA Farm to School Grant Program for the first time.
In 2015, during the 114th Congress, efforts began to rewrite and reauthorize CNR. In the end, however, the legislative process fell apart and Congress failed to pass a new CNR. Thankfully, while CNR traditionally gets revised every five years, it does not necessarily have to be reauthorized, as most of the program authorizations are permanent or have been extended through the annual appropriations process.
Visit our CNR Campaign page for more information on the history of CNR, NSAC’s advocacy campaign, and ways you can get involved!