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Standards for Nutrition Workers Are 'Unfunded Mandate,' Organizations Say

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Proposed new professional standards for food-service workers would create a financial burden for some districts and make it difficult for schools in some areas to find qualified staff, national organizations said in public comments about the rule.

The rule, which we wrote about in February, would establish professional education standards and annual training requirements for district-level workers who manage and operate National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs. The proposed rule would also set hiring standards for state school-nutrition program directors. Comments on the proposal closed today.

The AASA, The School Superintendents Association, said in its comments to the U.S. Department of Agriculture that adding new requirements without additional funding could strain some school nutrition programs. While the organization "supports the overall goals to end childhood hunger and address the epidemic of childhood obesity in the Healthy, HungerFree Kids Act," it remains concerned with some of the mandates introduced as a result of the legislation. In its comments, the group said:

"AASA's concern with the fiscal impact [the Healthy, HungerFree Kids Act] would have on LEAs has grown continually deeper as we have watched the law and its subsequent regulations—including higher meal standards, competitive foods, and indirect cost guidance, among others—place ever-increasing strain on school district budgets. Heading into the next school-nutrition reauthorization, AASA will support and advocate for transparency to ensure that rules and regulations are cost-neutral and do not place unfair burden on the nation's schools, whether fiscal or administrative.

Speaking generally to national certification/training requirements for food service personnel, they place an unfair burden on school districts, especially those school districts that do not have a dedicated staff person serving in that position. For small and rural school districts it is often the school district business manager or principal who has the responsibility of overseeing the school food-service program. Adding federal requirements to these already hard-to-fill positions will create even greater problems for rural and small schools."

AASA said it favors local control and flexibility in the rule. The National School Boards Association and the School Nutrition Association shared similar concerns. 

In its comments, the School Nutrition Association said it supported a rule that would allow for "grandfathering" of existing employees who may not meet the new standards. The organization recommended that districts that can't locate qualifying school-nutrition leaders could explain their situation and create a "corrective action plan" to be monitored by a state agency. The organization also pushed for a wide range of qualifying professional development options under the final version of the rule.

School nutrition workers need more training as regulations grow more complex and as schools change the way they purchase and prepare food, many healthy-food advocates say.

The USDA was instructed to create the rule under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which also mandated new nutrition standards for school meals. The new regulation would set the first blanket standards for training and hiring in the student nutrition field. Currently, many districts don't provide ongoing professional development for food-service personnel, and many cafeteria workers come from other professional backgrounds or work their way up the line into director positions without first obtaining a nutrition-related degree. The proposal implements higher standards for larger programs.

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