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Child Nutrition Hearing - Senate Ag Committee - March 4, 2009 - Part 1

by: Jill Richardson

Wed Mar 18, 2009 at 08:00:00 AM PDT

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A few weeks ago, the Senate Ag Committee held a hearing on child nutrition programs. And what better way for me to deal with insomnia than by watching replays of Senate committee hearings? So here's the scoop.

The chair, Sen. Harkin (D-IA), kicked off the hearing with a statement. He called child nutrition a "down payment on comprehensive health reform." Well done, Sen. Harkin. Ranking Republican Saxby Chambliss spoke next. He made generally positive comments about child nutrition and bipartisanship.

Then the hearing began with its first panel (agenda below). This diary covers the first panel about school lunch. A second diary will address the panel on food outside of school.

Jill Richardson :: Child Nutrition Hearing - Senate Ag Committee - March 4, 2009 - Part 1
Panel I:  Improving Nutrition Through the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs

Dr. Katie Wilson, School Nutrition Director
Onalaska Public Schools, Onalaska, WI

Dr. Susan Bartlett, Senior Researcher
Abt Associates, Cambridge, MA

Mrs. Connie Boldt, School Food Director
Knoxville Community School District, Knoxville, IA

Katie Wilson
Katie Wilson, President of the School Nutrition Association, spoke first. She said the average cost of school lunch is $2.92, but the reimbursement rate is $2.57. In other words, schools lose $.35 per meal. Her requests came down to money - an additional $.35 per lunch and $.20 per breakfast with updates to the reimbursement rates twice a year. She also asked for commodity support for breakfasts - $.10 per meal.

She noted that cash-strapped schools often charge overhead costs to the lunch program so that lunch funds go to pay phone bills (for example) or other bills for the school. She also asked for one, national interpretation of dietary guidelines instead of state interpretations. Her request for consistency extended to the fact that schools can serve foods outside the lunchroom that are deemed too unhealthy to serve in the cafeteria ("competitive foods").

Susan Bartlett
Next up Susan Bartlett. She described a study on the costs of producing school meals. Her data seemed to find that the government reimbursement was doing a better job of paying for school lunches than Wilson did.

Connie Boldt
Connie Boldt spoke next. She's a school food coordinator in Iowa. Her district developed a wellness policy, as all districts are required to do, and she spoke about that. She found that the requirements they came up with - serve a variety of fruits & veg (fresh, whenever possible), and serve whole grains whenever possible - were expensive and too vague.

Then they found the Healthier U.S. School Challenge guidelines to use that she referred to as the "missing link." She increased whole grains and legumes on the menus. But she noted that achieving the guidelines increased costs (not only for ingredients but also for labor). She echoed the request for an additional $.35 per lunch and $.20 per breakfast, and asked that the Healthier U.S. School Challenge receive money as well (I assume this means that schools going for the challenge get money to implement the program).

Harkin said he was struck by the difference in testimony between Wilson and Bartlett. Wilson said the money wasn't enough and Bartlett said it was. Wilson said she needed competitive foods to cover budget gaps, but Bartlett found the opposite, that the federally reimbursed lunches subsidized the a la carte items.

Wilson said there have been increasing costs from 2005-2006 (when Bartlett's study was done) until 2008-2009. Harkin asked what the reimbursement rate was in 2005-2006 ($2.51) whereas today it's $2.77. Wilson said yes the reimbursement rates DID go up but did not keep pace with costs. She added that schools are now looking for the food service program to pay more toward the bottom line of the whole school.

Bartlett said that her study was a nationally representative sample. She added that her main point of difference had to do with allocating administrative and overhead costs. She said she allocated those costs across all foods - lunches, breakfasts, and non-reimbursable foods.

Harkin said that the main question must be the allocation of these indirect costs. Wilson said the food service program is getting charged for costs that have nothing to do with food service at all - electricity, garbage pickup, warehousing, and not just the segments of those that food service accounts for.

Then Chambliss started his questions. He said that in Wilson's case, there were charges being assessed against the lunch programs that ought not to be assessed. He said he'd like to address that in the legislation.

Then he asked Wilson about regulation of competitive foods - if they were regulated by USDA, would wellness policies still be necessary in each district. She asked that the USDA please regulate competitive foods. She said some wellness programs were good, but others were not because they were written by individuals who might not have science in mind but rather a personal philosophy.

Next Chambliss spoke to Boldt and asked if support from parents was needed to meet her nutrition goals. She said she got great support across the board, but she said they supported the parents too by giving them nutrition information.

Next, Sen. Klobuchar spoke. She brought up a difference in her daughter's schools - one where most of the kids had free/reduced lunch and one in a wealthier area. She said in the wealthier area the kids ate better - home packed carrots vs. vending machine junk. She asked Wilson how national nutrition standards might lead to reduced costs.

Wilson said that if she had a standard that a product must be made at 2 oz, the manufacturer would make it because they would have enough demand to make it worthwhile, vs if local wellness policies specified smaller orders of 4 different sizes of the product. She also asked for ranges in nutrition requirements instead of hard numbers (a range for fiber, a range for sodium) to allow for increased use of local products.

Wilson asked that the USDA eliminate the time and place rule and establish 1 set of standards for everything - and include everything in the building for the school day in the standards. Boldt said she agreed 100%. Bartlett said that seems right.

Harkin said in the last Child Nutrition Reauth he had an amendment to have a wellness policy developed by the Institute of Medicine and the amendment lost. He said he's delighted that they are advocating for the USDA to have the authority and to abandon the time and place rule (i.e. nutrition rules only apply during lunch and in the cafeteria but not elsewhere). He said beyond that he'd like to see a wellness policy for the physical activity of the kids.

About increasing the reimbursement rate, Harkin said he's beginning to see that we don't have a good grip on indirect costs and there's no cap or inflationary guideline. It appears that he and Chambliss agree that this needs to be addressed in the Child Nutrition Reauthorization.

He asked Boldt how she accomplished what she did within the guidelines. She said she suspects that her costs were higher but isn't sure yet. He countered that she's in her second year of doing this. She said she's still not sure if she's within the reimbursement rate, and perhaps the competitive foods help pay the bills. Harkin asked if financial incentives would help schools meet the nutrition goals that she met. She agreed that's a good idea. Wilson said that the reward money should have to be kept within the nutrition program and not taken to be used for other costs within the school.

Harkin asked Bartlett about OMB guidelines on indirect costs. She didn't know. Wilson said she thought there was minor language governing it but it didn't limit it very effectively. She mentioned one school was first charged indirect costs this year, but the school went back eight years in charging the lunch program those costs. Harkin wants to look at OMB guidelines. He's afraid of putting a cap on indirect costs because all of the schools will immediately go straight to the cap.

Next, Sen. Casey spoke. He was concerned about tight budgets. This is quite a difference from Sen. Klobuchar, who was mostly focused on health and nutrition. Casey asked for success stories. He's worried about problems with all of the paperwork and administrative burdens of school lunch programs. Wilson asked to eliminate the reduced price category and make those children all receive free lunch. Bartlett suggested using Medicaid data to verify income.

Harkin asked Wilson whether the federal reimbursements were paying for the a la carte food. She said that would not be allowed. She said the a la carte foods subsidize the school breakfast and lunch programs. Then he asked Bartlett why her statement said the opposite. She said the difference had to do with allocation of overhead costs.

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