June 25, 2015
With Congress just days away from a week-long recess coinciding with Independence Day, the House Education and Workforce Committee’s Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education held a hearing on Wednesday, June 24th entitled Child Nutrition Assistance: Looking at the Cost of Compliance for States and Schools. The hearing is one of several that have been held by the House Education and Workforce Committee since April, as Congress looks to reauthorize federal child nutrition programs in the Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization (CNR) before current law expires on September 30, 2015.
The witnesses were: Donna Martin, Director of the School Nutrition Program for Burke County Public Schools in Waynesboro, Georgia; Melody Schopp, Secretary of Education, South Dakota Department of Education; John Payne, President, Blackford County School Board of Trustees in Hartford City, Indiana, and Lynn Harvey, Chief of School Nutrition Services for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.
While the specific topic of the hearing was the compliance costs associated with implementing the meal standards from the 2010 CNR (also known as the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act) in the school lunch and breakfast programs, Committee members and witnesses discussed a wider range of issues. In addition to discussing the need for increased reimbursements for school meals, additional time for schools meals, more training for school food service professionals, and reducing the paperwork and administrative burdens associated with implementing the school meal standards, the comments and questions also covered community eligibility, summer feeding and supper programs, and the sale of a la carte items.
The majority of the hearing’s time focused on the testimony and discussion between members and one witness in particular: Donna Martin, who shared about the creative and proven ways schools in her mostly rural school district have been able to maintain a lunch participation rate of 89 percent and a breakfast participation rate of 78 percent. Those rates have remained unchanged since implementation of the new meal standards following the passage of the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act.
Among the successful methods Ms. Martin has used in her schools to keep meal participation rates high among her schools is through farm to school activities.
Ms. Martin noted, “I’m also incredibly proud of our farm to school program that provides farm fresh produce to our students, including delicious Georgia peaches and blueberries.” By using locally produced fruits and vegetables, Ms. Martin testified that “consumption rates [for those items] doubled.” Ms. Martin also noted, “we are a fiscally sound program because we offer fresh fruits and vegetables that are in season…and coupled with the long shelf life of those products, we have very little spoilage.”
In a similar vein, when asked by Representative Mark Takano (D-CA) about her support for local farmers, fellow witness Lynn Harvey mentioned having a successful farm to school program to purchase local produce.
In addition to local procurement, other farm to school activities, such as nutrition education, were highlighted during the hearing by members and witnesses alike. Representative Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) asked about the difference nutrition education makes for students, noting that some schools in her district have “wonderful farm to school programs with school gardens and school nutrition programs.” Both Ms. Harvey and Ms. Martin talked about the importance of nutrition education and how children learn about fruits and vegetables during meal and snack times. Bonamici praised Ms. Martin for her nutrition education efforts, crediting it as “one reason your [school meal] program is so successful.”
The Farm to School Act of 2015
Discussed in two other House Education Committee hearings, during April 2015 and earlier in June 2015, farm to school is also the subject of a marker bill that was introduced in February 2015. The bipartisan, bicameral Farm to School Act of 2015 seeks to make the successful USDA Farm to School Grant program, which helps to create, grow, and improve farm to school activities in schools around the country, even more effective.
The bill was introduced on February 25, 2015 by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Thad Cochran (R-MS) in the Senate and Representatives Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) and Marcia Fudge (D-OH) in the House. Also sponsoring the House bill are Representatives Rodney Davis (R-IL), James Langevin (D-RI), Chris Gibson (R-NY), and John Garamendi (D-CA).
The bill proposes an increase in annual mandatory funding for the Farm to School Grant Program from $5 million to $15 million and to fully include preschools, summer food service sites, after school programs, and prioritize projects that link tribal schools and tribal producers. Currently, the grant program is only able to fund 1 out of every 5 applications. The proposed legislation also aims to improve program participation from beginning, veteran and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.
Since its launch in 2011, the USDA Farm to School Grant Program has supported projects that benefit farmers, kids and communities nationwide. Ms. Martin, in an April Congressional briefing on farm to school, talked about her application for funding through the USDA Farm to School Grant Program, which, if awarded, she hopes to use to increase local procurement in more schools in her community.
Congress will consider the Farm to School Act as part of the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act.
The National Farm to School Network and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition are partnering to advance farm to school priorities in the 2015 Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization, with the shared goal of supporting stronger communities, healthier children, and resilient farms.