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Bipartisan Bill Would Pay for School Kitchen Upgrades, Equipment

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Remember how the U.S. Department of Agriculture pulled a sequester switcharoo, shifting money set aside for school kitchens to pay for meat inspections instead?

Two House members are trying to get more money for school kitchens, some of which were built decades ago and can't keep up with the new standards required by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, and Rep. Mike McIntyre, D-N.C., are teaming up again to sponsor the School Food Modernization Act, a bill they pushed last session, too.

The USDA had set aside $35 million in this year's budget for new school kitchen equipment. But when automatic budget cuts kicked in earlier this year, the program was stripped of $25 million so that meat inspectors would be kept from having to take unpaid days off.

The Latham-McIntyre proposal would provide schools with loans to buy new equipment, with the federal government guaranteeing 90 percent of the loan value for schools that want to build, remodel, or expand their kitchen, dining, or food storage space. It would give schools grants for small projects and equipment, such as ovens, steamers, and stoves. And it would improve training and technical assistance for school cafeteria workers.

So what kind of stuff does that mean in practical terms? Mississippi used $1.7 million in federal grant money to replace deep-fat fryers with combination oven steamers so schools could swap fried chicken for baked chicken tenders.

Latham told the Des Moines Register that the grants would be paid for out of the existing USDA budget.

While many Des Moines schools have remodeled their kitchens in recent years, some of the district's facilities are not well-equipped to handle new federal rules requiring every school lunch to include fruits and vegetables, Sandy Huisman, the district's director of nutrition services, told the Register. In the past, the district allowed students to skip taking the produce.

The bill has the endorsement of some school nutrition experts, including Jessica Donze Black at the Pew Kids' Safe & Healthful Foods Project.

"The need to upgrade school kitchen infrastructure and improve staff training is now more critical than ever," she said.

Follow Rules for Engagement on Twitter @Rulz4Engagement and Education Week Staff Writer Nirvi Shah on Twitter @NirviShah.

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