WASHINGTON—U.S. Senator John Boozman (R-AR), Ranking Member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, continued to advocate for more flexibility in school nutrition programs as the Committee begins the process to reauthorize federal child nutrition programs.
“I have been a co-chair of the Senate Hunger Caucus for a number of years, so it is a priority of mine to see a child nutrition reauthorization bill cross the finish line. This hearing is the beginning of the process and it’s critical that we listen to those who are operating the programs to understand the lessons you have learned during the pandemic, and to know what is working and where there may be challenges,” Boozman said during his opening remarks of the Senate agriculture committee hearing on the issue.
Boozman noted he continues to hear concerns from program operators, including the Arkansas School Nutrition Association, about meal pattern requirements for milk, sodium and whole grains. If the U.S. Department of Agriculture does not extend the COVID-19 meal pattern flexibility, more stringent meal patterns that have never been implemented take effect October 1st.
“When schools are facing financial strain and doing their best to feed children during the pandemic, I find it alarming that schools would also be required to implement strict nutrition standards for which product is not available. This is a concern that needs to be addressed in the short term, but it is equally important to find a long term solution to give schools certainty,” Boozman said.
Jessica Gould, director of nutrition for Littleton Public Schools in Littleton, CO, echoed that message in her testimony. She recommended that current flexibilities on sodium, whole grains and milk be maintained and warned that stricter sodium mandates in particular, pose “serious concerns for our programs and ultimately students.”
“It is critical for our program’s participation and sustainability to keep these regulations where they are,” Gould said.
Additionally, Boozman stressed the need to modernize school nutrition programs, particularly the Summer Food Service Program, which he said needed additional flexibility to help ensure that children are getting the nutrition they need to succeed.
“Twenty-two million children receive free or reduced-priced healthy meals during the school year through federal programs, but five out of six of these children are missing meals during the summer. The Summer Food Service Program is hamstrung by rules that dictate a one-size-fits-all solution—requiring children to travel to a central location and eat their meals together,” Boozman said.
Boozman pointed out that more than 14 million low-income children across the country live in communities that are ineligible to operate an open summer meals site, and noted that even in settings where program sites exist, children often face barriers that limit participation.
“In communities where there are sites, access is far from easy. Lack of transportation and extreme weather often keep children from sites. In rural areas, where roughly three million low-income children live, the closest site may be several miles away. The pandemic has heightened the need for increased flexibility so that all options are on the table from off-site, grab-and-go models, to home delivery, to Summer EBT,” Boozman said.
During the hearing, Boozman praised the dedication of the witnesses, and all who work tirelessly, to provide healthy meals to children throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I also want to thank you for the incredible work you have done over the past year during the pandemic. Your organizations are made up of the heroes who are on the frontline every day ensuring children receive the food they need to grow and thrive. Your innovation, tenacity, and the commitment to ensuring those in need have access to food is truly amazing and I commend you,” Boozman said.