With the simple stroke of a pen, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced that we are bringing commonsense flexibility to rigid child nutrition regulations that originally sparked a highly charged national debate on school meals.
After joining many students, parents, teachers and school food administrators, from western Kansas to Olathe, for school meals in 2015 and 2016, I can tell you from firsthand experience that schools were striving to meet unrealistic standards. In fact, a lot of the “nutrition” adhering to the regulations in question ended up in the trash can.
In addition to the terrible food waste, USDA estimates school meal standard mandates cost school districts and states an additional $1.22 billion in 2015.
So what does this new flexibility mean for our schoolchildren?
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It means schools experiencing hardships making sure all grain products they serve are “whole-grain rich,” as currently mandated, can be granted a waiver for the 2017-2018 school year
It means sodium targets will remain the same for now. Assistance will be provided to schools to develop low-sodium menus students will actually eat.
It means regulations will be amended to allow students to drink one percent flavored milk. That’s right, low-fat chocolate milk is back.
Finally, this new regulatory flexibility means parents, students, teachers, coaches, school nutritionists and superintendents were heard — and not just by Secretary Perdue.
As chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, I wrote a child nutrition bill with the committee’s ranking member, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat from Michigan, that was approved by our committee with a unanimous vote. That’s right, in January 2016, all Democrats and Republicans supported similar changes to the nutrition standards of the previous administration.
We also included provisions to improve the integrity of school meal programs while ensuring access to these programs for those in need. We strengthened the summer meals program by reducing administrative burdens and providing relief from regulations that prevented local innovations.
In negotiating this bill language with my colleagues across the aisle, we received support from key advocacy groups on all sides of the debate. We also negotiated with the Obama administration and were assured of its support for our language.
Despite this consensus, what we needed in the end was a new administration willing to listen and to act.
Since Secretary Perdue announced his efforts, some media reporting has characterized these new flexibilities as a Trump administration attack on first lady Michelle Obama’s legacy.
Luckily for American schoolchildren, this couldn’t be further from the truth. No matter what side of the aisle you are on, or your interest in this topic, we all want the nation’s child nutrition programs to ensure the next generation of Americans has access to nutrition that allows them to thrive in school and become productive adults.
Making improvements or changes to this program does not mean we don’t care about our children getting healthy food.
It means we have a noble program that needs practical and realistic adjustments to improve and better accomplish its stated purpose: feeding hungry kids.
If we could just apply this common sense to the rest of government.
Pat Roberts is a U.S. senator representing Kansas.