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Senate Hearing on School Meals Highlights Challenges and Opportunities

July 25, 2014

On Wednesday, July 23, 2014, the Senate Agriculture Committee held a hearing entitled, “Meeting the Challenges of Feeding America’s School Children,” which examined the challenges and successes in serving healthier school meals across the country, as mandated by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, also known as the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2010 (CNR).

Set to expire on September 30, 2015, CNR 2010 required the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) to issue new school meal nutrition standards, resulting in new rules that increased the amounts of fruits and vegetables served, reduced saturated fat and sodium, and provides for more whole grain-rich foods, among other changes.  These rules, which were initially celebrated by groups such as the School Nutrition Association, are the subject of an intense debate over whether to allow school districts to temporarily opt out of the standards – with the once supportive SNA, now opposed to keeping the entirety of the rules it helped to create intact.  A rider included in the currently stalled Agriculture Appropriations bill would grant school districts a one-year waiver from nutrition standards for school meals.

The five witnesses testifying were:

  • Betti Wiggins, Executive Director, Office of Food Services, Detroit Public Schools
  • Scott Clements, Director, Office of Healthy Schools and Child Nutrition, Mississippi Department of Education
  • Julia Bauscher, President, School Nutrition Association
  • Katie Wilson, Executive Director, National Food Service Management Institute, University of Mississippi
  • Phil Muir, President and CEO, Muir Copper Canyon Farms, Utah

The hearing is the second in a series of hearings on CNR that the Committee has planned, with the first hearing on June 12 which focused on the importance of child nutrition from educational, parent, medical, and military perspectives.

Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) opened the hearing with a reminder of what’s at stake in child nutrition: the health of America’s children, with 1 in 3 children overweight or obese, and the accompanying impacts to our economy and national security.  Chairwoman Stabenow also highlighted the positive developments in Michigan schools around healthier meals for students, including farm to school initiatives.  Ranking Member Thad Cochran (R-MS) noted that he looked forward to finding ways to improve federal child nutrition programs.

The majority of witnesses testified to the successes of their work – whether serving healthier school meals with strong student participation, increasing “the market share for local farmers,” lowering costs for schools in food procurement, training child nutrition professionals, or providing produce distribution for schools in rural, urban, and tribal schools.  In contrast, Ms. Bauscher’s testimony for SNA focused on the organization’s criticisms of the new standards, attributing the decline in school meal participation and increase in school food waste to the standards.

Ms. Wiggins mentioned the “short term pains” that come with implementing new standards, but shared how early adoption and preparation, consistent inclusion of healthy food products in school meals, along with community involvement and collaboration, have been crucial to the success of Detroit Public Schools in meeting the standards.  Ms. Wiggins also noted that food manufacturers were helping schools meet the new standards and that Farm to School has helped with increasing Michigan grown products for their meals and with educational opportunities.

Mr. Clements shared about the success of Mississippi’s Statewide Purchasing Cooperative (the first of its kind in the nation), which has helped lower costs and simplify procurement for school districts, the majority of which have a small number of schools located, for the most part, in rural areas.  Mr. Clements also highlighted a partnership with the State Department of Agriculture and the Department of Defense to bring Mississippi-grown products to schools.  The Mississippi Department of Education has also created menu planning tools and recipes to help schools implement complex menu planning requirements.

The final two witnesses, Ms. Wilson and Mr. Muir, voiced their strong support for the new standards, saying that waivers should not be granted and described their efforts to help schools provide healthy meals.  The National Food Service Management Institute provides curriculum, courses, and trainings for child nutrition professionals nationwide.  Muir Copper Canyon Farms, a regional produce distributor in Utah, Idaho, and western Wyoming, helps connect local farmers to schools as customers and provides ways to lower labor and packaging costs in their deliveries.  Mr. Muir, like Ms. Wiggins, emphasized how proactive schools that introduced children to healthy foods early on, made incremental changes, and offered nutrition education, did not experience problems in implementing the standards or increased plate waste.


Most of the questioning from Democrats centered on ways to replicate the successes of school districts like Detroit and others who were meeting the nutrition standards without problems.  Adequate training for child nutrition professionals, nutrition and food education through programs like Farm to School, collaboration with other groups such as state agencies, distributors, universities, school districts, and food professionals, and consistency in incorporating healthy foods into school meals, were repeatedly cited by the witnesses as key to successfully meeting the nutrition standards.  Meanwhile, some Republicans on the Committee raised questions as to whether exemptions to the standards would be reasonable and over the need for greater flexibility in the standards.

On Monday, two Robert Wood Johnson Foundation-funded studies of elementary and middle and high school administrators were released that gave encouraging signs of students’ reactions to healthier meals.  Over the course of a school year, students complained less and warmed up to the healthier meals, with 63 percent of high school student and 70 percent of elementary and middle school students liking the meals.  The studies also showed that rural, white, middle-income to affluent, and older children were slower to adapt to the healthier meals.

Senator Johanns did raise the issue of white, rural students complaining about their meals and not participating in the school lunch program, adding that his state did not have any area like Detroit and therefore schools in Nebraska would need “flexibility” to achieve the success that Detroit has.  However, Ms. Wiggins pointed out that the differences between rural and urban communities are erased when you compare the poverty rates in rural and tribal areas with urban areas, and that all areas need to be savvy in their approach to meeting nutrition standards and providing healthier meals.

Witnesses also provided insights into other issues needing to be addressed to help schools provide healthy and local foods, including the need for kitchen equipment, the requirement for food safety certification for farmers looking to sell to schools, USDA’s late issuance of implementation guidance memos within days of compliance deadlines, and inclusion of the food manufacturers in the dialogue around meeting nutrition standards.

Senator Stabenow and Ms. Bauscher both voiced their concern over the lack of time for students to eat their lunch and its impact on increased plate waste.  Senator Stabenow expressed her desire to work with SNA on addressing the issue.

Farm to School

And finally, while Farm to School educational activities and procurement from local farms for school meals were mentioned throughout the hearing, Senator Klobuchar in particular spotlighted the issue during her recognized time.  Mentioning the USDA Farm to School Census and the percentages of school budgets that are devoted to local foods in Minnesota, Senator Klobuchar asked Ms. Wiggins to describe their local procurement efforts and successes.  Ms. Wiggins mentioned that 22.5 percent of the Detroit Public School District budget is spent on Michigan grown produce and how working with other school districts (including Minneapolis) the Detroit school district is looking for ways to make local produce more accessible to more schools.  Senator Klobuchar went on to highlight a Minnesota study that demonstrated an increase in student participation in school meal programs for those students participating in a Farm to School program.

USDA’s Farm to School Grant Program supports a range of farm to school activities, from school meals that incorporate locally produced foods, activities in the classroom, school gardens, and farm visits that educate children about food, to trainings for school food service workers and farmers.

Establishing and winning mandatory funding for the grant program was a major NSAC campaign during the reauthorization of child nutrition programs in 2010.  It will again be an NSAC priority for the upcoming CNR 2015 reauthorization legislation.  To stay up to date on the latest in NSAC’s CNR Campaign, sign up for our newsletter and action alerts on our homepage here.


Categories: Local & Regional Food Systems, Nutrition & Food Access

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