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Rokita Statement: Hearing on “Child Nutrition Assistance: Looking at the Cost of Compliance for States and Schools”

We all know the important role healthy food plays in a child’s education. We cannot expect children to learn or excel in the classroom if they are hungry or are not properly nourished.

That’s why we on the Education and the Workforce Committee have been examining child nutrition programs to ensure they are effectively and efficiently providing children access to nutritious meals. It goes without saying your commitment to serving students is vital to achieving that goal.

The question we want to answer today is: are federal policies giving you the tools and flexibility you need to succeed in implementing child nutrition programs so that your students can succeed in the classroom? Based on what we have heard from other stakeholders, the federal role in these programs may be doing more to hinder your success than help it.

Following the 2010 reauthorization of the national school lunch and breakfast programs, the Department of Agriculture issued a number regulations that expanded Washington’s influence over K-12 cafeterias. The department has narrowly defined what types of food can be served in schools and how often, the maximum number of calories students are allowed to eat per meal, and the price a student must pay per meal.

While these regulations are well intended, states and schools are struggling to comply with them, and the very children we aim to serve are paying the price. While program costs, administrative burdens, and food waste are piling up, portion sizes, food offerings, and the number of students participating in the program are on the decline. In my home state of Indiana, for example, the number of lunches served each year has declined by more than six million since the regulations went into effect in 2012.

I’ve heard these concerns from my colleagues and constituents, and I’ve read the reports from government watchdogs, but – as the saying goes – I needed to see it to believe it. Earlier this year, I joined students and staff for lunch at Cloverdale Middle School in Indiana, where food service director Billy Boyette described the challenges he and his staff face to provide meals that both comply with federal regulations and appeal to students.

From firsthand experience, I can verify that despite the increased federal involvement in the school meals programs, many students are still going to class hungry. Furthermore, reports from the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office raise concerns about whether or not the resources for these programs are going to the students who need it most.

If our shared goal is to increase student success in the classroom, and if we know that nutritious meals play an important role in that success, wasting limited taxpayer dollars hardly seems like a favorable outcome.

That’s why we are here today. As education leaders who have committed themselves to serving students, you provide critical insight into what’s working and what isn’t and what types of policies Congress should consider as we move forward with reauthorization.

It’s time to provide those responsible for implementing child nutrition programs with the flexibility they need to ensure taxpayer dollars are well spent and students are well served. I am confident learning from your experiences, observations, and recommendations will inform our efforts to accomplish just that.

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