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VOL. 41 | NO. 12 | Friday, March 24, 2017

Corker, Cooper, DesJarlais weigh in on school meals

By Kathy Carlson

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Debate has just begun this year about the federal budget and what role the federal government will play in social welfare programs, including nutrition measures like the National School Lunch Program.

Deep philosophical differences exist in Congress on the role of government and the responsibility of individuals in nutrition issues, and opinions abound on how it will address school meals.

A professional organization representing school nutrition staffers says Congress may deal with school meals in piecemeal fashion this year.

“What we’re hearing is that Congress is more focused on the Farm Bill (this year),” says Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations with the School Nutrition Association, a nonprofit professional organization representing 57,000 school-nutrition professionals. “They may not get around to pushing a reauthorization bill” for the school meals program.

Last year, a Republican-backed reauthorization measure didn’t become law, but would have relaxed nutritional standards that grew out of the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

The SNA has backed relaxing some nutritional standards, including those addressing salt and whole-grain usage, and some Republican members of Congress still would like to get rid of the standards. Some in the schools would like more flexibility.

“The nutritional guidelines are pretty rigid,” says Jason Collins, Dickson County Schools director of nutrition. “We have to be creative in how we prepare the foods.”

He adds he’d welcome some relaxation in the whole-grain requirement. “There are unintended consequences with the whole grain requirement. Kids choose not to eat some of the whole grain items because it’s not what they eat at home. Everything in moderation is the key.”

Pratt-Heavner says she’s heard concerns about the whole-grain rule from nutrition professionals across the country. Southern schools said that using whole-grain-rich flour to make biscuits resulted in a less-tasty biscuit.

Some Northern schools didn’t like what whole grain does to bagels, and out West, there was some resistance to whole-grain tortillas.

Piecemeal efforts to change the school lunch program could come through new regulations, through the appropriation, or through specific changes to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

Farm legislation has an indirect effect on school meals because public-school meal programs use U.S. Department of Agriculture surplus commodities. Other federal programs, such as SNAP (formerly Food Stamps), also affect childhood nutrition.

To see where the state’s Congressional leaders stand on the school lunch issues, The Ledger contacted Tennessee representatives. Sen. Bob Corker, Rep. Jim Cooper and Rep. Scott DesJarlais took the time to respond.

Corker promised to carefully study any proposed changes to the school lunch program given its increasing importance to children in need.

The Republican serves on the Foreign Relations; Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs; and Budget committees, as well as on the Special Committee on Aging.

“School lunch programs have increasingly become more important for children most in need,” he said in an email. “I appreciate parents across Tennessee sharing their thoughts with me on this issue, and I will carefully review any changes to the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act when it comes before the full Senate for reauthorization.”

Cooper, who represents Nashville, said 1 in 4 children statewide face hunger issues and praised the efforts of the Obama administration and local organizations to help alleviate hunger.

Cooper represents Tennessee’s 5th Congressional District, which includes Nashville, plus Dickson County and most of Cheatham County. He serves on the House Armed Services and Oversight and Government Reform committees.

“Nearly 25 percent of Tennessee children suffer from hunger,” Cooper said in an email. “Bringing that percentage down to zero has to be each community’s ultimate goal. Until then, Nashville has many resources to help pick up the slack, but rural areas in our state aren’t always so lucky.

“For many children, school meals are the only healthy food they get, and chronic hunger is likely to cause students to be sick, tired or unable to concentrate. We have to give our students a fighting chance. That starts with consistent, healthy meals at school.

“We’ve made some progress with school nutrition programs like the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which provides all Metro students with free breakfast and lunch at school. But there’s a lot more we can do, including making sure we reach hungry students during the summer.

“The Metropolitan Action Commission prepares an average of 6,000 meals daily for more than 100 sites throughout Nashville during the summer months. I’ve also supported many food assistance programs in the past such as SNAP and WIC, and I’m proud of the work organizations like Second Harvest do to make sure meals are served during weekends and school vacations. Our students are our future, so we cannot afford any risks or gaps in nourishment.

“Former First Lady Michelle Obama did a lot of good work on this – not only with school lunches, but also by promoting an overall healthy lifestyle.

“Many Republicans would like to weaken the nutritional standards in our school cafeterias. But while a lot of our children would go hungry without food assistance, a third of Tennessee’s children are also overweight or obese because they may only have access to a steady diet of unhealthy food. In fact, one in five Nashville residents live in a food desert, lacking access to fresh fruit, vegetables and other whole foods.

“So-called ‘fast food,’ chips and cookies are readily available at convenience stores in some of our towns and communities that don’t have adequate grocery stores. It’s good that Metro is committed to helping these businesses offer more affordable healthy food options, but our students need a consistently nutritious diet at school, too.

“By ensuring our kids have healthier options and stressing the importance of physical education, we promote active and nutritious lifestyles for our children, leading to better adult lives. Lunches and snacks in school programs are great opportunities to teach smarter eating habits.

“A local teacher recently wrote to me and said that stronger school lunch nutritional standards have lifted his students’ energy levels and test results. He’s one of many Middle Tennesseans who are worried about Republican efforts to diminish these standards. I hope President Trump will continue investing in the health of Tennessee’s future.”

DesJarlais, who represents much of southern Middle Tennessee, said that children’s need for nutrition assistance signals the need for more economic growth and better jobs so their parents can better provide for them.

The Rebublican represents Tennessee’s Fourth Congressional District, which covers much of southern Middle Tennessee and southeast Tennessee. He has offices in Cleveland, Columbia, Murfreesboro and Winchester. He serves on the Agriculture, Armed Services, Oversight and Government Reform committees.

He replied by answering the individual questions submitted by the reporter.

What are (representatives) hearing from constituents about the school lunch program?

“My constituents are independent-minded people, who would rather have good jobs that enable them to afford lunch for their children. They are also kind people, who care for their neighbors. They want to make sure people who are truly poor benefit, that overly generous subsidies do not strain the program or create dependency.”

What is their take on the current school lunch program, its goals and whether it is meeting those goals? Strengths and weaknesses of current program?

“If more and more kids need nutrition assistance, we’re failing them. The underlying economy and jobs are the real issues. Despite expensive anti-poverty programs, the poverty rate has remained largely unchanged. We need to address the conditions that create poverty in the first place.

“Those conditions include a $20 trillion debt, high taxes and complex regulations that punish small business. Illegal immigration is an especially heavy burden on poor American citizens.

“Not only free school lunches, but also SNAP benefits and other public assistance programs have ballooned. The question is – could the billions of dollars we pour into these programs be put to better use in the private economy, in the form of lower taxes and spending that create jobs, savings and investment?

“Redistributing taxpayer money through the federal bureaucracy is often a wasteful, inefficient method of helping those who need economic assistance. The best possible anti-poverty program is a good-paying job.”

What is their take on current nutritional standards for school lunches?

“Nutrition standards are inflexible and may be having the opposite of the intended effect, as portion sizes and popularity among kids have decreased. Parents and their children have been vocal about their displeasure with the previous administration’s strict rules.”

What is your position on funding the school lunch program with block grants, as opposed to per-meal reimbursement?

“Block grants would allow states and school districts to help those who truly need assistance, while protecting public funds. We want to make sure the program works as it’s intended, efficiently and effectively.”

How about eligibility standards and the community eligibility provision (which automatically enrolls children in high-poverty districts whose families qualify for means-tested federal aid)?

“Naturally, expanding eligibility and automatic enrollment expanded the population of school lunch beneficiaries to many who could probably afford lunch. In this light, it seems the bureaucracy’s object is simply to substitute the federal government for parents’ traditional role in their children’s lives. That’s the definition of overreach.”

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