WASHINGTON, D.C. | June 16, 2015
We all know the important role nutrition plays in a child’s development and education. As I’ve said before, it’s just commonsense that if children are hungry or malnourished, then they are less likely to succeed in the classroom. That’s why the federal government has long invested in programs that aim to provide America’s most vulnerable students the nutrition assistance they need.
Ensuring children have access to healthy food is a goal we all share and lies at the heart of our effort to reform federal child nutrition programs, many of which are set to expire later this year. We have conducted several hearings and briefings to learn more about these programs, as well as the rules and regulations that dictate their implementation at the state and local levels.
What we have learned from students, parents, school nutrition professionals, government watchdogs, other key stakeholders, and yes, even the Department of Agriculture, is that the latest reauthorization of federal child nutrition laws is the most far-reaching and costliest in a generation. Current law requires the department to prescribe how much money schools charge for meals, what food can and cannot be served in schools, and how much of it can be served.
In other words, Washington is responsible for deciding what and how much our children eat. These regulations have created an environment where students are not getting the nourishment they need, and food and taxpayer dollars wind up in the trashcan.
Julia Bauscher, president of the School Nutrition Association, conveyed to the committee the concerns she is hearing from school nutrition professionals across the country. Julia described how regulations are resulting in harmful consequences that threaten the ability of schools to best serve students. She went on to decry the “sharp increase in costs and waste and the historic decline in student lunch participation under the new requirements.”
We are often told that more than 90 percent of participating schools are complying with the law. First, as we learned from the Government Accountability Office, it is highly likely this number is overly optimistic. But let’s not forget that schools that choose to participate must comply with the law. The question isn’t how many schools are in in compliance, the question is: At what cost?
The department estimates that participating school districts will be forced to absorb $3.2 billion in additional compliance costs over a five-year period. To make matters worse, fewer students are being served. Since the regulations were put in place, participation in the school meals programs has declined more rapidly than any other period over the last three decades, with 1.4 million fewer children being served each day.
I saw these challenges firsthand during my visit to the Prior Lake School District in Savage, Minnesota. Students described smaller portion sizes and limited options that left students hungry and more likely to buy junk food. After students petitioned the school board, Prior Lake has decided to drop out of the school meals program next school year. It is the only way the school can meet the needs of its students.
And the problems with the law do not stop there. The Office of Inspector General for the Department of Agriculture and the GAO identified examples of programs misusing taxpayer dollars, raising serious concerns about whether or not we are actually assisting those in need.
As we work to reauthorize federal child nutrition programs, we must find solutions that will ensure taxpayer dollars are well spent and children are well served. We know developing a one-size-fits-all approach is not the answer. More mandates and more money aren’t the answer either. Instead, we should look to improve these programs by giving states and school districts the flexibility they need to fulfill the promise of child nutrition assistance.
Duke Storen from the not-for-profit organization Share Our Strength advised at a recent hearing, “It’s critical … to remove bureaucratic barriers and create efficiencies that will allow us to reach those kids who currently go without.” I look forward to discussing how we can achieve just that without imposing more burdens on our schools.
# # #