Starting the conversation: House hearing on child nutrition programs
On Tuesday, March 12, the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Human Services within the House Education and Labor Committee held the first hearing of the new Congress on child nutrition programs, what could be the first hearing in preparation for the next Child Nutrition Act reauthorization (CNR). The “Growing a Healthy Next Generation: Examining Federal Child Nutrition Programs" hearing focused on the importance of these programs, including farm to school and how it helps children succeed in school and life.
Key topics discussed by committee members included the impact of nutrition programs on children’s access to food, regulatory challenges that school nutrition staff face, and the urgency of addressing children’s health early in life.
Witnesses included Dr. Eduardo Ochoa, the Principal Investigator for the Children’s HealthWatch Little Rock site at Arkansas Children’s Hospital; Cheryl Johnson, Director of Child Nutrition & Wellness for the Kansas State Department of Education; Donna Martin, Director Of School Nutrition Programs for Burke County Public Schools in Waynesboro, GA; and Nikki Berlew O’Meara, mother of two and member of Moms Rising. Witnesses were asked a number of questions ranging from how they’ve been navigating new nutrition standards to their thoughts on whole and flavored milk for children.
While no specific questions about farm to school were asked during the hearing, Rep. James Comer (R-KY) and Rep. Rick Allen (R-GA) acknowledged the positive impacts farm to school has made in their home states. "As a farmer myself, I understand the importance of supporting local farmers by providing school access to local farm fresh ingredients,” said Rep. Cormer. In introducing Ms. Martin, Rep. Allen noted that he's visited Burke County schools for farm to school events on several occasions. "In fact, as a member of Congress, I've never missed that event and never will - obviously you can tell, I love good food!" he said. "I've seen first hand students growing their own food there - it's incredible."
As part of her testimony, Ms. Martin shared several ways that farm to school has been an important part of child nutrition programs in Burke County. "I'm incredibly proud of our farm to school program that provides farm fresh produce to our students. We found that when we started offering local fresh produce - like collards, berries, peaches - our fruit and vegetable consumption rates doubled,” Ms. Martin said. “We are fiscally sound because we offer seasonal fresh produce. We work with the Burke County farmers to provide local fruits and vegetables at very competitive prices. I've had local farmers beating down my door to set up contracts with me. In the school nutrition world we call this a win win win - a win for the farmer, a win for the kids, and a win for our local economy.”
In closing the hearing, Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) noted that with child nutrition programs, "Congress has consistently recognized through bipartisan support that a quality education includes making sure that every child has access to healthy and nutritious food." She specifically named farm to school as one of the programs that helps make this happen.
National Farm to School Network was pleased to hear praise for farm to school in the hearing. It’s a promising sign of opportunity for the farm to school movement as this critical legislation is developed. Additionally, the positive response to farm to school signals recognition of the important role it plays in the success of all of the other child nutrition programs.
While CNR is intended to be reauthorized every five years, it has been nearly 10 years since the last reauthorization. Known as the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, the last (and current) CNR has provided monumental support for the farm to school movement by legislating the creation of the USDA Farm to School Program, which provides annual competitive grants and technical assistance to help schools, farmers, non-profits, state agencies and other entities implement and expand farm to school activities across the country. Since the first grants were awarded in FY 2013, demand for the highly successful program has been more than four times higher than available yearly funding. Opportunities to make the program accessible to more communities with an increase in annual funding is one of the policy initiatives the National Farm to School Network is exploring as we prepare for this next CNR.
What other ways can the next CNR support your farm to school efforts? We want to know! Join one of our upcoming CNR Listening Sessions, beginning March 19, to share your thoughts and ideas for our future CNR policy initiatives. And, make sure you’re subscribed to our e-newsletter to receive updates and action alerts as the CNR process continues.
The National Farm to School Network and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition are partnering to advance farm to school priorities in the next Child Nutrition Reauthorization, with the shared goal of supporting stronger communities, healthier children and resilient farms.