Honorable Debbie Stabenow, Chair
Honorable John Boozeman, Ranking Member
U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry
328A Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510
Honorable Bobby Scott, Chair
Honorable Virginia Foxx, Ranking Member
U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor
2176 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515
Re: The Child Nutrition Reauthorization
Dear Senators Stabenow and Boozeman and Representatives Scott and Foxx,
I write on behalf of Slow Food USA, the national, not-for-profit organization dedicated to a food chain that is good, clean, and fair for all. We believe in the right of all, and most particularly our children, to enjoy ample, culturally meaningful, biodiverse, sustainably, and humanely produced food that is good for human health and well-being, the planet, and those who work to put food on our tables.
Our volunteer members and supporters act in programs that support school gardens and food education and biodiverse, sustainable, humane food production. Our decades of engagement in these venues has led us to advocate for federal policies that align with our beliefs.
In a typical year, our School Garden Network volunteers will touch about 200 school gardens around the nation enabling students’ hands-on experiences planting, harvesting, and enjoying delicious, healthful food in a supportive, learning environment.
We are proud of our school garden work, but the fact is, there are 100,000 schools and 30,000,000 children participating in the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs that provide for about five billion lunches each school year! Twenty-two million children from low-income households qualify for free and reduced-price lunches and many rely on these meals to meet half of their nutritional needs.
Success in achieving our goals cannot result solely by our actions but must be supported by our advocacy for public policies that complement our on-the-ground programs. The new Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR) affords our nation the opportunity to
• Equitably provide all children with free access to ample, healthful school meals and nutrition education that support their learning readiness now and their health and well-being now and into the future and
• Help re-localize our food chain by ensuring that local and regional, urban and rural, and beginning, veteran, and BIPOC food producers have access to their local schools’ food purchasing programs.
In support of these goals, we offer our recommendations for the next CNR.
UNIVERSAL FREE SCHOOL MEALS
School meals reduce childhood hunger, decrease childhood overweight and obesity, improve child nutrition and wellness, enhance child development and school readiness, and support learning, attendance, and behavior. It is a win/win for our children and our future. We applaud the Administration’s action to extend universally free school meals through 2022 and to supplement summer meals through expanded Summer Pandemic EBT and support .
We support the Universal School Meals Program Act of 2021 that would permanently provide free breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a snack to all school children regardless of income, eliminate school meal “shaming” and debt, relieve schools of costly administrative burden, and strengthen local farm and food economies by incentivizing local food procurement by schools.
SCHOOL MEAL NUTRITION
The nutrition of school meals is imperative to children’s learning and future health.
The landmark Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) of 2010 called for
• Increased servings of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains,
• Low or fat-free milk only, and
• Elimination of most sugar-sweetened beverages.
HHFKA standards began successful implementation in 2012 with 98% of school districts meeting the guidelines without substantial reductions in school meal participation and no increases in plate waste. Despite these positive outcomes, there was substantial pushback by the previous Congress and Administration, rolling-back HHFKA nutrition standards.
Research shows that marketing and advertising of high-calorie, low-nutrient foods and beverages increases children’s preference and intake of unhealthy food and beverage. Unhealthy food marketing aimed at children and teens is a significant contributor to poor diet quality and diet-related disease. Poor diet quality is a major cause of ill health, contributing to chronic diseases like coronary heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and obesity.
For schools to have the ability to provide nutritious meals and help children establish healthful habits, they need optimally functioning kitchen equipment and appropriate kitchen staff training. Nearly 90% of schools need at least one piece of updated school kitchen equipment. When schools do not have adequate equipment, they are forced to use more processed ingredients and often costly and inefficient workarounds. A National Institutes of Health study found that overly processed foods lead to overeating and eventually to weight gain. Two other studies linked ultra-processed foods to heart disease.
We urge Congress to
• Restore fully HHFKA nutrition standards that align with the USDA/HHS 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans,
• Prohibit advertising, marketing, and brand awareness strategies targeted by the food industry at children in schools and through educational materials, and
• Require robust food and beverage marketing standards in local school Wellness Policies.
We support the bi-partisan School Food Modernization Act of 2021 that would provide funding to help school food services upgrade kitchen equipment and support kitchen staff training to help ensure schools can efficiently prepare more nutritious, delicious food, increasingly made from scratch using fresh and minimally processed ingredients.
FARM TO SCHOOL PROGRAMS
Farm to school activities – including procurement of local food for school meals, together with school garden and food and agriculture education – have been proven to help students build healthy eating habits and support family farmers by expanding market opportunities. While more than 42,000 schools across the country – about 42 percent – are engaged in successful farm to school programming, there is significant room to grow, ensuring that all students and communities can participate. Since 2013, 1,900 applications requesting over $141 million in support have been received. Presently, with only $5 million in mandatory funding available annually, the existing USDA Farm to School Grant Program has been forced to turn away roughly 80 percent of qualified applications.
We urge Congress to enact legislation that would
• Significantly increase annual mandatory funding for grants and increase the maximum grant award to $250,000,
• Prioritize grant proposals that engage beginning, veteran, and socially disadvantaged farmers and serve high-need schools,
• Increase access among Native and tribal schools to traditional foods, especially from Tribal producers, and
• Support schools in low-income, underserved communities, including Tribal communities, to support paid, district-wide, school garden coordinators to provide experiential and academic programs to help children understand, grow, prepare, and enjoy healthful, culturally meaningful, and climate friendly food.
We support these bills.
• Kids Eat Local Act that would help increase schools’ access to locally grown foods by providing flexibility around the use of geographic preference in the National School Lunch Program and make it possible for schools to procure “locally grown, locally raised, and locally caught” food and farm products for their meal programs.
• Farm to School Act that would expand funding for and programmatic scope of the USDA Farm to School Grant Program ensuring that more racially diverse communities and high-need student populations and beginning, veteran, and socially disadvantaged farmers have a competitive opportunity to participate in the program.
According to the CDC, our students receive less than eight hours of required nutrition education each school year, far below the 40 to 50 hours that are needed to effect behavior change. Additionally, the percentage of schools providing required instruction on nutrition and dietary behaviors decreased from 84.6 percent to 74.1percent between 2000 and 2014. Given the important role that diet plays in preventing chronic diseases and supporting good health, schools ideally would provide students with more hours of nutrition education and engage teachers and
parents in nutrition education activities. Research shows that nutrition education can teach students to recognize how healthy diet influences
emotional well-being and how emotions may influence eating habits.
We support the bi-partisan Food and Nutrition Education in Schools Act that would establish a Food and Nutrition Education in Schools Pilot Program to award grants to local educational agencies for projects that;
• Hire qualified, full-time food and nutrition educators to carry out programs in schools that have the goal of improving student health and nutrition and
• Fund school gardens or other evidence-based interventions relating to student health and nutrition to create hands-on learning opportunities for students.
Further, the bill would give priority to projects that serve schools or districts
• in which not less than 40 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals or
• that include neighborhoods with high rates of childhood obesity or other diet-related diseases.
MORE TIME FOR LUNCH
A recent USDA study shows that, even with more schools providing more nutritious meals and more children opting for those healthier meals, plate waste, always high, remains so, at about 30%.
Many schools allot just 25 minutes for school lunch. When the bell rings, students leave the classroom, walk to the cafeteria, wait in the food line, choose their meals, and then find places to sit. That leaves far less time for eating. This limited time to eat has the greatest impact on children from lower income households, who rely on school meals for a significant portion of their daily nutrition, about up 50 percent. A National Institute of Health study concluded, “Insufficient time to eat…was associated with significantly decreased entrée, milk, and vegetable consumption…. School policies that encourage lunches with at least 25 minutes of seated (eating) time may reduce food waste and improve dietary intake.”
We urge Congress to enact legislation that would provide incentives, guidance, technical assistance, and funding to encourage schools to provide more time for lunch — increasing the average 25-minute lunch to at least 30 minutes, with at least 20 minutes of actual, seated time to eat.
Thank you for your attention.