The Advocate October 2022

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The Advocate October 2022

Last month, the Biden administration hosted the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health to “catalyze action for the millions of Americans struggling with food insecurity and diet-related diseases like diabetes, obesity, and hypertension.”

Ahead of the conference, the administration released its national strategy—outlining steps necessary to reach the goal of ending hunger and increase healthy eating and physical activity by 2030 so fewer Americans experience diet-related diseases, while reducing related health disparities.

The strategy includes five pillars: 1) Improving food access and affordability, 2) Integrating nutrition and health, 3) Empowering all consumers to make and have access to healthy choices, 4) Supporting physical activity for all, and 5) Enhancing nutrition and food security research.

Most notable for district leaders in the strategy was an explicit commitment to advance a pathway to free, healthy school meals for all. The national strategy expressed the importance of school nutrition programs and the need to fully leverage them as a core intervention to improve child health and child hunger. It calls for a “healthy meals for all” approach to reorient the school meal programs from an ancillary service to an integral component of the school day and allow schools to focus on providing the highest quality meals and engaging children around healthy food.

Essential components highlighted for this approach are expanding efforts to increase access to local and regional food systems, enabling more schools to cook meals from scratch by funding training and equipment purchases, investing in the school nutrition workforce, and expanding nutrition education for children. The Biden administration committed to working with Congress to expand access to healthy, free school meals for 9 million more children by 2032.

That commitment will require buy-in from Congress, but USDA does have some flexibility to expand the Community Eligibility Provision (a top nutrition priority for AASA) on its own. While speaking to reporters, U.S. Sec. of Agriculture Tom Vilsack mentioned this flexibility but did not provide specifics. AASA encourages USDA to use every tool at its disposal to expand CEP to allow more schools to participate in the program and ensure it is also financially viable for them to do so.

Additionally, the national strategy focuses on creating healthier food environments and a healthier food supply. As such, USDA will continue to work to reduce sodium in school meals with the goals of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the FDA’s voluntary sodium target. While AASA recognizes the importance of promoting healthy eating habits around sodium, enriched whole grains, and dairy intake, it is important to acknowledge that healthy meals are only healthy if students eat them. We continue to engage in conversations with USDA around the need for reasonable nutritional standards that provide flexibility for school nutrition programs and do not lead to unnecessary food waste and reduced participation.

Other commitments from the Biden administration to support schools in this work include:

  • The administration will continue to support the expansion of Summer EBT (another nutrition priority for AASA).  
  • USDA will provide training and resources to school meal program operators on incorporating more indigenous and traditional foods into school meals to improve access.
  • USDA will advance a new Healthy Meals Incentive initiative—supported by ARP funding—to support schools’ efforts to improve the nutritional quality of school meals. This initiative will challenge all players within the K-12 food supply chain to increase the availability of and access to healthy offerings, recognize School Food Authorities (SFAs) that are innovating in offering nutritious school meals, and provide funding to small and/or rural SFAs to improve the nutritional content of meals offered through the Child Nutrition Programs.
  • USDA will work to strengthen and diversify suppliers that provide healthy, nutritious and local foods to schools and nutrition assistance programs by assisting small and underserved farmers and businesses to become vendors for school meals.
  • The U.S. Dept. of Education will provide guidance to states and school districts on how they can use funds under the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act grants and ARP funds to support physical activity for children.
  • The U.S. Dept. of Education will, through the Engage Every Student Initiative, promote strategies for increasing participation in physical fitness programs and for incorporating physical activity in summer learning and engagement in after-school programs.

Finally, the strategy included a “Call-to-Action for a Whole-of-Society Response.” Here are the highlights related to K-12 schools:

  • States and school districts should increase investment in school food programs such as providing investments to support kitchen infrastructure and training school nutrition professionals.
  • States, localities and K-12 schools should consider incorporating culinary arts and nutrition education into schools.
  • Philanthropy should support pilots that foster collaboration between food service programs at K-12 schools and colleges or universities to synergize efforts around workforce training and food procurement.
  • The food industry should increase the availability of and access to foods that are low in sodium and added sugars—including foods meeting or exceeding FDA’s voluntary sodium reduction targets—and high in whole grains, particularly for the K-12 market.

You can watch the entire conference recording here.  

So far, reaction from Congress to the conference has been mixed and as could be expected, fairly partisan. The conference overall did not have a strong bipartisan showing—U.S. Sen. Mike Braun (R-IN) was the only GOP lawmaker in attendance. Additionally, on the day of the conference, House Ed and Labor Committee Ranking Member Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) released a statement criticizing the event—claiming it did not engage key stakeholders and dismissed it as partisan. Meanwhile, support from Democratic lawmakers poured in for both the conference and its policy proposals.

The path to a bipartisan agreement to expand access to school meals is unclear, but there is hope that the Senate will take up Child Nutrition Reauthorization before the end of this year—building on the momentum of the House Democrats’ version: the Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids Act, which passed the House Ed and Labor Committee on July 28. The bill, in its current form, would permanently expand CEP, which would be a longer-term solution than any USDA action, but given the current Republican opposition to the policy it will require strong advocacy to get it included in the final bill.