WASHINGTON, Sept. 8, 2015 – The pressure is on Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and others to lobby Congress to reauthorize the Obama administration’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act before it expires at the end of the month.
At the National Press Club Tuesday morning, Vilsack responded to opponents of the law’s healthier school meal standards and announced USDA would be allocating an additional $8 million in grants to train school nutrition professionals to “prepare healthier meals for students.”
“There are a lot of interesting strategies that can be used in the cafeteria” to bolster fruit and vegetable consumption, improve professionalism among personnel and keep costs down, Vilsack told reporters. “This resource will provide folks the opportunity to access those strategies.”
The School Nutrition Association (SNA), which represents more than 50,000 school nutrition professionals, said in a release that USDA hasn’t adequately funded the law’s implementation to date, leaving school food programs without professional training on how to develop and market new menus or prepare healthier foods.
SNA also argues that schools need a higher per meal reimbursement rate – 35 cents more – from USDA, because the students that pay full price for school meals aren’t purchasing the à la carte items and entrees that meet the law’s whole grain and lower sodium standards, cutting into the school’s bottom line.
An SNA survey conducted this summer found 58 percent of 1,100 school meal directors surveyed had experienced a decline in lunch participation in their school district under the new standards. That decline was most pronounced in districts with a low percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced lunches, the survey noted.
Vilsack responded to critiques of the law one-by-one.
It isn’t “too hard” for schools to meet the standards, and they have enough money to do it, Vilsack argued. “The fact is 95 percent of the school districts across the country have embraced these standards and are certified as being in compliance, and as a result, receive the additional 6 cent reimbursement rate that the law allowed.”
The USDA wouldn’t turn down a meal reimbursement increase of more than 6 cents in the law’s reauthorization, but it’s not likely to be “in the cards,” Vilsack noted.
“We provided $90 million at the beginning of this effort several years ago in implementation resources to states. The sad reality is that still today $28 million of those dollars have been unspent by states,” so if some schools are still having trouble meeting the standards, they should call on their governors, state legislators and education departments, Vilsack said.
As for school meal participation, Vilsack said it’s up for school breakfast and free and reduced lunch programs. “What’s down is paid lunch,” Vilsack admitted, but not because of the standards – paid lunch participation was already down years before HHFKA was implemented due to the recession, he said.
When asked about how USDA planned to help wealthier school districts pay for drops in sales as a result of the standards, Vilsack said, “I don’t believe that given the limited resources that we do have, that we necessarily need to provide more to those that already have more.”
“The answer is not creating…excuses to back off on these standards,” he continued, but to instead strengthen them by continuing to decrease sodium limits as scheduled and to allocate more funding for USDA summer and weekend feeding programs through the HHFKA reauthorization.
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