January 20, 2016
Four months after the last iteration of the Child Nutrition Act expired, the Senate Agriculture Committee today, January 20, took a critical step forward by unanimously voting their new version out of committee. Titled “Improving Child Nutrition Integrity and Access Act of 2016”, the Senate committee bill expands summer feeding programs by dramatically improving access, increases the ability for tribal schools and feeding programs to serve culturally significant foods, and compromises on the long-running battle over nutrition standards.
Most important from our vantage point, the bill includes strong support for the Farm to School grant program. The program received an increase of $5 million in annual grant funding (from $5 to $10 million per year) from the bipartisan bill, which will help school meal programs to increase local food purchases and expands educational food and agriculture activities. The $10 million a year is permanent funding (no expiration date) and mandatory, meaning it is not subject to the vagaries of the annual appropriations process.
With the committee markup completed, Chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) will now send the bill to the Senate floor for final debate. The exact timing for Senate floor debate is not yet known, but the bill is widely expected to pass without major difficulty in the Senate.
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) and our partners at the National Farm to School Network (NFSN) applaud Chairman Roberts and Ranking Member Stabenow on their bipartisan effort to move this legislation forward. We also congratulate Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Thad Cochran (R-MS), the lead Senate co-sponsors of the Farm to School Act of 2015, for successfully championing the inclusion of farm to school improvements and funding increases in the bill. The Farm to School Act was introduced in the Senate in March 2015 and has now been incorporated into the Improving Child Nutrition Integrity and Access bill approved by the full Committee.
The bill doubles support for farm to school activities through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Farm to School Grant Program. The grant program wasfirst funded in the 2010 Child Nutrition Act reauthorization, also known as the “Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act” (HHFKA). The 2010 Act provided $5 million in annual, mandatory funding for the grant program to help schools source local, nutritious foods, help children develop healthy eating habits, and increase local farmers’ access to this important emerging market.
“I am pleased the bill includes the Farm to School Act,” said Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT). “I’ve gone to a lot of schools in my state of Vermont and I enjoy getting to see these farm to school lunch programs. Usually when I go visit around the state [these visits are] the only time I get a decent meal!”
Since the Farm to School Grant program was launched in 2012, funded projects have provided significant economic opportunities for farmers and local agriculture-related businesses, including processors and distributors. As a result of the high volume of interest in and need for farm to school programs, demand for the grants has dramatically exceeded available funding–only 20 percent of applicants were able to receive grant funding from 2012-2015.
Section 110 of Title I of the new bill includes the following changes:
As Co-State Farm to School leaders for the state of Mississippi, Sunny Young Baker and Dorothy Grady-Scarborough help local farmers and schools connect kids to real food. They travel throughout Mississippi and work with communities to kickstart farm to school programs wherever they can. Following Senate Agriculture Committee action, Young Baker and Grady-Scarborough reached out to NSAC to share how the bill would support communities in their state once passed.
Sunny Young Baker
Funding for the Farm to School Grant Program is huge because we have historically had way more applicants than we have had awardees. I can definitely foresee many more school districts in Mississippi applying thanks to this increased funding. There is just so much schools can do with this kind of support from Congress. For example, that grant funding is what started our program in Oxford, which is now strong going into its fourth year. Good Food for Oxford Schools (GFOS) is an initiative of the Oxford School District in Oxford, Mississippi to improve cafeteria menus and simultaneously educate students and their families. The initiative fosters school gardens, salad bars, food clubs, more from-scratch cooking in the schools, and increased local food sourcing.
Many of our schools are really interested in teaching kids how to grow food and cook food now. When we can combine that interest with purchasing partnerships with local farmers it becomes a great win-win opportunity. When local procurement and food education happen at the same time, that’s when you have the biggest impact on the students. If they grow it, if they cook it, they’ll eat it.
Farm to school is gaining momentum here statewide. Sunny and I host monthly farm to school calls, and every month there are more and more newcomers. Farmers, food service directors, educators – you name it, they are on the call. We’re really proud to be able to create this opportunity for all of them to network, troubleshoot, share advice, work together to increase and improve farm to school activities across the state.
I actually met with a group of local farmers at Alcorn State University about this just this week. They are really eager to partner with our schools and to start a partnership with a local processing facility so that they can aggregate their products with other farmers’ for school purchases. This increase in funding is going to mean so many more opportunities for nutrition education, school gardens, and local purchasing. Our farmers are eager and they are ready. They can grow it!
By far the most contentious issue in this year’s CNR is the debate over school nutrition standards. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 included the most extensive changes to child nutrition programs since the 1970s, including enhanced nutrition standards for school meals. Since that time, however, portions of the new standards have come under attack from a variety of quarters, some based in substance and some based in partisan attacks over First Lady Michelle Obama’s commitment to reversing childhood obesity.
The Senate Agriculture Committee was able to strike a compromise that has gained support from nutrition advocates concerned with the health and quality of school meals as well as from school and school food industry groups that wanted to alleviate operational challenges some schools faced in implementing the new standards. The bill largely protects the school meal nutrition standards won in HHFKA, with revisions made to the whole grain and sodium standards. USDA is directed to revise whole grain and sodium standards to require 80 percent of grains served (instead of 100 percent) to be whole grain rich, and to delay the implementation of a second round of sodium reduction targets by two years (until 2019). Nutrition and farm to school advocates applauded the decision to maintain existing standards for increased fruits and vegetables in school meals without revision.
The bill gives USDA 90 days to write the new rules for whole grains and sodium. If the Senate and House act quickly enough, those rules would be in place for the school year starting this September.
While the Committee’s passage of this bill is a crucial first step toward reauthorizing and expanding child nutrition programs, there is still a long road ahead before these changes can be signed into law. Attention now turns to the full floor of the Senate and as well as the House Education and Work Force Committee.
For “The Improving Child Nutrition and Integrity Access Act of 2016” to become law it must next muster enough support to pass the full Senate. The full Senate is likely to schedule floor time in late February or March. While passage is not guaranteed, the bipartisan comprises reached on nutrition standards and other contentious aspects of the legislation bodes well for its prospects.
The House Education and Work Force Committee, the committee with jurisdiction over child nutrition programs in the House, must also draft, release and markup their own version of the bill. The House has yet to make any firm commitments or set clear timelines for moving forward, but we are hopeful that the Senate’s bipartisan action will encourage those in the House to move forward.
There has also been some discussion about the possibility that the House might support the Senate’s version of the bill instead of writing their own. Such a development seems possible given the bipartisan support of the Senate committee bill, but what direction House leadership will take on the bill remains to be seen.
Lawmakers have limited time to pass a joint Child Nutrition Act reauthorization. If a bill cannot be agreed upon in the current legislative cycle, the higher funding levels and improvements to farm to school and the summer food program, the other big winner in the new bill, will remain stagnant, and the nutrition standard debate will be left unresolved.
While there are several critical steps to take before the “Improving Child Nutrition and Integrity Access Act of 2016” can make it to President Obama’s desk, the Senate Agriculture’s Committee’s passage of a bipartisan bill with support from major stakeholder groups and the White House is a very good sign. The leadership of the Senate Committee on this effort has illuminated a path forward to successfully delivering a new, stronger Child Nutrition Act in 2016.