05.07.15

Chairman Roberts Calls for Timeliness, Bipartisanship in Child Nutrition Reauthorization

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Pat Roberts, R-Kan., Chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, today held a hearing to review child nutrition programs, which expire in September.

As school districts of all sizes across America are having difficulties implementing the new regulations, Chairman Roberts has been eating school lunches with students across Kansas and hearing firsthand what does and does not work from both sides of the serving line. In addition, significant error rates and improper payment levels within the school lunch program have recently been highlighted in reports from the USDA Office of Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office.

“We will need to improve the administration of these programs to reduce errors, but do so in a way that does not layer additional federal bureaucracy and overreach on those who are seeking to feed hungry schoolchildren,” Chairman Roberts said.

"My travels in Kansas have indicated that we need some flexibility. Many folks are worried about what flexibility means, but to me flexibility means we still protect the tremendous gains already achieved by many and provide assistance to others so they too may achieve success."

“The Agriculture Committee will conduct this reauthorization in an open and transparent manner that gives members an opportunity to pass good legislation for their constituents. I would like for this to be a bipartisan bill, and I am pleased that Ranking Member Stabenow feels the same way. With the entire committee working together, we can develop a well-rounded bill that will improve the operation of these important programs. It is also my intention to complete this reauthorization on time – before the programs expire at the end of September.”

For witness info, testimonies, and to watch the hearing, click here.

The following is Chairman Roberts’ opening statement as prepared for delivery:

Good Morning. I call this meeting of the Senate Committee on Agriculture to order.

Welcome to our first hearing on child nutrition reauthorization in this Congress. I commend my colleague, Senator Stabenow, for her leadership on this issue and the hearings she held last year. 

The Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act and the Child Nutrition Act of 1966 authorized critical programs of great importance for Kansas, our nation, our farmers and ranchers, and our vulnerable populations, including hungry children. 

The school lunch program was originally created as “a measure of national security, to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s children and to encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities.” 

Coming out of World War II, Congress saw the need to establish the school lunch program in part to ensure our military had a sufficient supply of eligible individuals to defend our nation from global threats.    

Additionally, the current research regarding the need for adequate nutrition during a person’s developmental stages provides further support for what Congress knew even back then – hungry children do not learn. 

With threats to our national security and increasing economic competition, it is imperative that our nation’s youth are physically fit for military service and are not malnourished at key times in brain development.

Furthermore, the original two-fold intent of the programs still holds true today. First, the programs provide a safety net for our most vulnerable populations—mainly children—that are at times without sufficient food. Secondly, the law requires a portion of the assistance for the school meal programs to be in the form of agriculture commodities, produced here in America by our nation’s farmers, ranchers and growers. 

As we begin the reauthorization process, it is important to remember the purpose of these programs. These programs are not about anyone’s legacy. They are about ensuring our nation’s security and ensuring that our children are well-educated, productive contributors to a competitive economy. They are also about helping the vulnerable among us who cannot help themselves.  

I plan to conduct this reauthorization in the same way in which I am seeking to conduct all of our business here at the Agriculture Committee. 

First, with the perspective of our constituents in mind – we are here for farmers, ranchers, small businesses, rural communities, and program participants and stakeholders. We are here to write their interests and their will into law - not to impose the government’s will and interests on them.

Second, this reauthorization will include rigorous and thorough oversight of these programs.   

Periodic expiration and reauthorization of legislation provides Congress with the opportunity to review and evaluate programs, and this opportunity should not be taken for granted. It is our responsibility to closely examine each program. Not every program needs a major overhaul, but every federal program can benefit from increased efficiency, improved integrity, and reduction of waste.

Our committee will conduct this reauthorization in an open and transparent manner that gives members an opportunity to pass good legislation for their constituents. I would like for this to be a bipartisan bill, and I am pleased that Senator Stabenow feels the same way. With the entire committee working together, we can develop a well-rounded bill that will improve the operation of these important programs. 

It is also my intention to complete this reauthorization on time – before the programs expire at the end of September. I understand there are some who may prefer that we not succeed in this endeavor. I caution those individuals that these programs are too important not to reauthorize. Gambling, fortune telling, or using a crystal ball to predict a better reauthorization in the future is foolish and shortsighted. It is time for folks to come together and be a part of crafting legislation - not to stand outside the process and hoping it fails.  

We have been in listening mode in preparation for this reauthorization, and that culminates in today’s hearing. I have traveled throughout Kansas, visiting school food directors, talking with parents, students, school administrators and others involved in these programs. We have had hearings last year, and we have our experts here today. As we seek to put what we have learned into legislative form, several priorities have become clear. 

First, reauthorization provides an opportunity to review programs and improve their efficiency and effectiveness. In the school meal programs, there are significant error rates and improper payment levels. These have recently been highlighted in reports from the USDA Office of Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office. We will need to improve the administration of these programs to reduce errors but do so in a way that does not layer additional federal bureaucracy and overreach on those who are seeking to feed hungry schoolchildren.

Second, it is evident that evolving programs encounter different challenges as they try to adapt to changing times. Each new challenge is met with additional modifications, guidance or regulation. These can unintentionally evolve into very complicated systems that are often outdated or needlessly cumbersome. We need to identify areas in which we can simplify—make things easier for those implementing and participating in the programs. 

Third, my travels in Kansas have also indicated that we need some flexibility. Many folks are worried about what flexibility means, but to me flexibility means we still protect the tremendous gains already achieved by many and provide assistance to others so they too may achieve success.

These programs can’t help anyone if they aren’t workable. The Department of Agriculture and others have worked very hard to help those that aren’t meeting the current standards and have promoted statistics citing high rates of compliance. Yet, we have schools that are currently struggling, and I understand that at least 46 states applied for the recent whole grain waiver. And, we have additional sodium restrictions that are still on the way!

Lines in the sand and uncompromising positions will benefit no one, especially not the hungry children these programs serve. Working together, I am confident we can find a way to preserve the nutritional quality of school meals without a one-size-fits-all approach that prevents some local flexibility.

These programs have historically had strong bipartisan support. The 2004 and 2010 reauthorizations passed by unanimous consent.

But debate leading up to those bills also included significant controversy, similar to the issues we face today. Yet Republicans and Democrats worked through the process together and came up with legislation that everybody could support.  

Finally, it is vital that this legislation does not contain additional spending without an offset. We have received many bipartisan suggestions for ways to improve these programs, but many of those have considerable price tags. Our budgetary constraints are real; our responsibility to our constituents includes not spending money that we don’t have. 

I look forward to working with Senator Stabenow and each member of the committee throughout this reauthorization process.  

I am also appreciative of the witnesses here today. A special thanks to Ms. Cindy Jones, who has traveled from Olathe, Kansas, to be on our second panel. I look forward to hearing from our witnesses regarding their experiences with these programs. I thank them for their testimony before the committee. 

I now turn to my colleague, Ranking Member Stabenow, for any opening remarks she may have.

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