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Fulcher Opening Statement at Hearing on School Nutrition Programs

Today, Republican Leader of the Civil Rights and Human Services Subcommittee Russ Fulcher (R-ID) delivered the following opening statement, as prepared for delivery, at a hearing on school nutrition programs:

“The school meal program is one of the most important programs this Committee oversees. If students are hungry, they don’t learn. If they don’t learn they don’t succeed in school. This impacts their prospects for a successful career as adults. As I dig into this issue and hear more from my constituents on these programs, the best thing we can do is ensure this program works up and down the pipeline for those it’s intended to serve.

“When I say up and down the pipeline, I mean from production to consumption. Our nation’s parents, farmers, ranchers, food producers, school districts, and school nutrition experts all play a critical role in the success of these programs. It is our job as elected officials to make sure the program aligns with what parents approve of and what farmers can produce, to ensure we are able to buy healthy, safe, and tasty food for students, and maintain requirements that are easily implemented in real school settings. If the standards are unattainable or overly complicated the program will fail. Nutrition officials from school districts around my state tell me one of the challenges they face while striving to put together nutritional and enjoyable choices for students is following the unclear, complicated federal rules.

“To that point, let me quickly discuss the sodium targets in the current regulations. I’ll chalk this up to a noble goal that doesn’t thoroughly account for the reality on the ground. Under Target Two of the sodium requirements, grades K-5 can have no more than 935 mg of sodium per lunch. If Target Three is enacted, sodium would be reduced to 640 mg. The American Heart Association released a sample menu of what further reducing the sodium might look like. Not surprising, the meals become far less appealing. To meet Target Three sodium requirements, schools must eliminate the cheese from a cheeseburger, nix the pickles, and trade the potatoes for carrots. Does a plain hamburger patty with no condiments, no bun, and a side of carrots sound enticing to any of us, much less a school-age child? Hardly.

“Pushing for standards that don’t meet the reality on the ground will accomplish nothing because kids simply won’t eat the food. While schools have done an unbelievable job of working to implement the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act standards since they went into effect - serving more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and less fat, calories, and sodium than ever before - the final sodium targets are unworkable given the other requirements they must meet when serving meals. One cannot cram idealism into the lunch programs and pretend the problem is solved.

“The so-called ‘American Families Plan’ includes a vague program proposal that gives $1 billion to groups that push unworkable school meal standards. Before we create a new, expensive program that could sow confusion that burdens schools, we should assess our existing programs and look at how they can be adapted to meet their intended goals.

“One issue that deserves a closer look is nutrition education. How can we support local schools as they work with families to promote better nutrition? For example, how can we utilize programs like Team Nutrition, Farm to School, and others to spark student interest to help them take what they learn about food production, food business, and food preparation and share it at home? What kind of partnerships with grocers, farmers, and others can we look at to close the circle to help support healthy eating at home? These are the questions we should consider as we thoughtfully reauthorize this program.

“As we look towards reauthorization, Congress must understand what the school meal program will look like in the coming school years with the changes that come from new COVID and health-related issues, such as meal service or food preparation. I am glad to see the Secretary provided some certainty for schools in the upcoming summer and school year as they reopen and determine how to serve meals to students. However, if we limit our reauthorization efforts to the status quo, we hinder the ability of schools to provide healthy, tasty meals to students.

“There are many more programs I could touch on today, but this is just the beginning of the reauthorization process and I appreciate the Deputy Under Secretary for joining us. I would be remiss if I did not mention it is unfortunate that this is not a full committee hearing as I think a reauthorization such as this deserves the full committee’s attention. Nonetheless, I look forward to hearing her testimony.”

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