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Members of Congress: Coming Soon to a School Cafeteria Near You (Maybe)

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senator-pat-roberts-school-lunch-kansas-500px.jpgIf you regularly find yourself in a school cafeteria, there's a good chance you'll see a person in a suit with a flag pin mingling with students there this fall. Members of Congress might be more comfortable eating at a political fundraiser than in a public school lunchroom, but many of them are accepting invitations to check out exactly what the kids are eating these days.

Organizations on all sides of the school lunch fight have challenged supporters and public school administrators to invite their senators and representatives to learn firsthand about the successes and challenges with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's school meals programs by visiting their schools and summer meals sites. They're motivated by two things: ongoing arguments about whether Congress should provide a waiver for some schools from heightened meal standards, and the coming reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, which sets rules for all school nutrition programs.

The School Nutrition Association, which has advocated for greater flexibility under the heightened nutrition standards, is entering members who host congressional visits into a drawing for a free trip to its legislative conference. "As SNA prepares for Child Nutrition Reauthorization in 2015, we are encouraging our members to help promote school nutrition programs to their members of Congress," the organization said on its website. "Having them visit, interact with your staff and see the kids is the best way to highlight the importance of school nutrition programs."

The SNA has advocated for a plan, included in an agriculture appropriations bill currently under consideration in the U.S.  House of Representatives, that would give some schools a one-year break from the rules if they can prove a net revenue loss within a six-month period since they've been implemented.

In addition to supporting the waiver plan, the SNA has asked "the USDA or Congress" to:

  • Retain current grain and sodium requirements, rather than ratcheting them up another notch as planned.
  • Eliminate the requirement that students must take a fruit or vegetable with their meals.
  • Allow any food item that is allowed on the main food line to be served as a competitive food under the new Smart Snacks rules, which went into effect July 1.

'Do No Harm'

Citing the importance of federal child nutrition programs in combating hunger and boosting achievement, the Food Research and Action Center described a top priority in its approach to Child Nutrition reauthorization as "do no harm." 

In a webinar this summer, the anti-hunger organization described its approach to the legislative process, which included inviting members of congress to meal sites this summer.

The organization has spoken out against the waiver plan. As part of reauthorization, it supports efforts to increase access to child nutrition and school meal programs, such as community eligibility.

Legislative proposals listed in the summer webinar include efforts to expand summer meals programs and the Expand School Meals Act of 2014, sponsored by Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn. That proposal would gradually phase out the reduced-price meal category, providing students who are currently eligible for reduced-price meals with free meals instead.

Hey, You Don't Look Like a Student...

So, if you see a member of Congress in your cafeteria, shake his or her hand and tell them what's working and what (if anything) needs changing. Child Nutrition reauthorization only comes around every five years.

Photo: U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, center, talks to students at lunch in the common cafeteria for schools in Osage City, Kan., in 2013​. -John Milburn (AP-File).

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