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Governors stress nutrition efforts, school meal cost concerns

By JERRY HAGSTROM

Several governors told Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack Sunday how they are supporting improved nutrition in their states, but some also expressed concerns about higher prices for school meals and USDA inspections of school meal facilities under the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.
Gov. Mike Beebe

Gov. Mike Beebe
“Childhood hunger is a priority issue for the nation’s governors because it undermines a child’s wellness and ability to learn,” said Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe in an opening statement. Beebe, a Democrat, is chairman of the National Governors Association’s Education, Early Childhood and Workforce Committee.

“Governors are working to solve this problem through the use of innovative policies and tools, including partnerships with businesses and nonprofit organizations,” Beebe said. “We are united in our commitment to ensuring that our nation’s children have enough to eat.”

Gov. John Hickenlooper, D-Colo., said that half of Denver’s elementary schools will have school gardens this year, and that once all the city’s elementary schools have them next year, he hopes to involve schools in other parts of the state.
HockenlooperJohn

Gov. John Hickenlooper
Hickenlooper added, however, that he is concerned about how much sugar children are eating.

“I want every community to look at calories in and calories out,” he said, and to make sure that children don’t miss gym class.

Vilsack said he would give “hats off to the food industry” for reducing the amount of sugar in canned and frozen fruit juice, and noted that under the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act schools would have more money to buy fruits and vegetables.

Republican Govs. Bob McDonnell of Virginia and Phil Bryant of Mississippi noted they had planted kitchen gardens at their residences, following First Lady Michelle Obama’s example of planting one at the White House.
Gov. Phil Bryant

Gov. Phil Bryant
Bryant noted that the Mississippi Delta is one of the areas USDA says has food deserts — places without full grocery stores — and that he believes one of the answers to that problem is gardening. The state of Mississippi, he said, has formed a partnership with the Mississippi Farm Bureau to encourage gardening in food desert areas.

“My parents believed the garden was a character builder,” Bryant said.

But Beebe also said he is worried that a provision in the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act for increases in the cost of school meals for children who do not qualify for free and reduced price lunches will discourage middle-class children from eating school lunch.

“I’m worried about whether this will have a chilling effect” on participation, Beebe said.

Vilsack promised USDA would monitor the increases, but also noted that Congress had inserted the provision out of concern that schools were taking money intended for free and reduced price students to lower the costs for middle -class children. The increased revenue from raising the prices to middle-class children is to be used to buy better foods, Vilsack said.

“We don’t want school districts shortchanging those who have a need,” he added.
Gov. Bill Haslam

Gov. Bill Haslam
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican who co-chairs the committee, told Vilsack he is concerned about a requirement of the act that school lunch rooms be inspected every three years to make sure they are complying with USDA requirements, and asked whether USDA could reduce the inspections on schools that are performing well to every five years.

Vilsack said that as a former governor of Iowa he understood the request, but that the law requires USDA to inspect all schools every three years and non-performing schools more frequently than that. USDA lawyers, he said, have interpreted the law to mean that the department must inspect the schools every three years, but he said he would discuss it with its staff and that Congress could change its mind. “You work with legislators, you know how it is,” the secretary said.

Vilsack also said USDA will help schools meet the new benchmarks for improving school meals, and that Congress provided $50 million for each of two years for administrative expenses.

He also said President Barack Obama asked in his fiscal year 2013 budget to buy new food preparation equipment, and that the administration believes that 10,000 schools could receive help with new equipment through a competitive process.

Noting that the lunches are to be improved by this July and the breakfasts by 2013, Vilsack said, “We believe this is not an impossible task.”

The secretary also said he is worried that schools are cutting nutrition education out of the curriculum, noting that he believes lunch time can serve an educational purpose.

“There is no reason the cafeteria workforce can’t provide some assistance in this area,” Vilsack said.

He also noted that schools are allowed to buy foods locally and said that practice allows the schools to keep funds in their communities.

Beebe noted that feeding children when schools are out is a particular concern.

Daniel Weekley of Dominion Resources Service told the governors that his company has donated to a “No Kid Hunger Campaign” in Virginia to reduce childhood hunger when school is not in session.

The state of Virginia has a “collaboration table,” which has proved vital to the effort, Weekley said, because different state agencies had to cooperate to figure out how to reach children.

Julie Gehrki of the Walmart Foundation, which has also made contributions to anti-hunger efforts, said it relies on the expertise of food bank and others to deliver the food. Vilsack said that it may be necessary to use vehicles to take the food to the playgrounds and swimming pools where children can be found in the summer.

Vilsack also said that USDA will release a proposed rule for standards for foods in vending machines “in the very near future,” and that contrary to rumor USDA will not eliminate school bake sales.