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Last night I couldn't sleep. So I did what any sensible person would do. I watched an entire Senate hearing on Child Nutrition. As for the title of this piece, it's true. Senator Harkin is a fantastic advocate of breastfeeding.

I wrote up the entire hearing in two diaries on my site: School Food and Food Outside of Schools. Summaries of both are below. This is important stuff to pay attention to because they are having these hearings in preparation for writing a BIG child nutrition bill.

I also have a roundup of info about child nutrition and school lunch in recent news.

Food In Schools
There's one major program for hungry kids in school: the National School Lunch Program. It also extends to breakfasts. The idea is that if a kid is hungry, at least they are going to eat while they are in school. And it's going to be nutritious. In theory anyway.

There are 3 types of school food discussed in the hearing. School lunch, school breakfast, and "competitive foods." Competitive foods is anything sold outside of the federally reimbursable school lunch/breakfast. In other words - vending machines, a la carte items, and quite often JUNK. Currently the USDA gets to set nutrition standards on lunch and breakfast but it has NO power to set nutrition standards on the competitive foods. Instead, each school is asked to come up with its own wellness policy.

A school's budget on school lunch goes something like this. There are costs. There's the money that comes in from kids who pay for lunch. And then there's the money the government will pay to reimburse them for the kids who get to eat for free or at a subsidized rate. And there's the free commodities from the government. Obviously the schools have control over their costs and over the prices they charge the kids who pay for lunch, but the federal government sets the reimbursement rate and decides how much to give in commodities.

There were 3 speakers in this panel. The first said she needs more money (i.e. a higher reimbursement rate) and she wants the USDA to (at LONG LAST) regulate the nutrition standards on competitive foods. The second said that the schools have enough money and don't need more. The third was from Iowa (Harkin was BEAMING with pride) and she had achieved a high nutrition award for the quality of food served at school. She said she did it on the money she already had but more money was needed - healthy food IS expensive.

The four Senators who spoke in Q&A were Harkin, Chambliss, Klobuchar, and Casey. I was most impressed with everyone but Casey. Klobuchar spoke as a loving, concerned parent. Chambliss was quite human for a Republican. Harkin is a long-time very well known advocate of child nutrition. Casey sounded more concerned about the cost.

A major finding, it seemed, was that schools are shifting a lot of their general costs over to their lunch programs. In other words, they'll say that the school lunch program has to pay for ALL of the trash pickup for the school. Or for an entire warehouse that stores desks and school supplies and a little bit of food too. And that's been getting worse and worse in the past few years as the economy's gone south. Thus, the lunch program's now asking for more money.

It seemed positive to me that the Senators might put in a provision to keep schools from doing that. But it seemed less good that we won't get the extra $.35 per kid per meal we've been asking for. There's a silver lining here. Harkin was impressed with the Iowa school's achievement and he wants to give a financial reward for schools who can achieve that. This will also make it more possible for them to buy healthy food - assuming they can't then take the reward money and use it for a new football stadium or something.

Last, they asked to ease the paperwork burden on schools for getting kids signed up for these programs, to eliminate the reduced cost lunch category and just make those kids free, and to give the USDA the authority to set ONE set of nutrition standards for all food sold in the school building during the school day (right now there's a "time and place rule" - the USDA only has control over what's sold in the cafeteria during the lunch hours).

Food Outside of Schools
There were 3 speakers here, and they covered 3 different programs. WIC (women, infants, and children), a childcare food program that provides food to childcare facilities, and after school snack and summer meal programs. Together, these programs essentially cover all of the times when kids aren't in school.

The take-aways here were pretty simple. They need to streamline these programs so that it's easier for providers and for kids to get involved in them. Right now they are each separate programs with separate requirements and paperwork. They want to see something like, if you are eligible for Medicaid, you're automatically enrolled in these food programs too. Save the paperwork on the families. Also, they want to see it easier on those who provide the programs so that you don't have one group doing the summer meals program and someone different doing the after school program. And it was said somewhat quickly but this is HUGE - if everyone eligible for WIC participated, the program doesn't have enough money to pay for that.

Next, they want to see the WIC food guidelines extended to the other programs. WIC just re-did its food packages based on recommendations from the Institute of Medicine, and apparently the childcare food program has not. So you've got kids getting whole milk, or no whole grains, and that sort of thing. Pretty obvious recommendation there.

Also, they noted that it was easiest to get the kids to show up to the after school and summer programs when they were having fun with activities other than just food - swimming, being read to by firefighters and policemen from the community, getting raffle tickets for a prize bike that was raffled off at the end of the summer, etc. This made Harkin wonder if the money for food should be somehow linked to community involvement to help the kids have fun.

My favorite part was the discussion of breastfeeding. Apparently Harkin was very active back in the day at combating Nestle's practice of giving out formula at the hospital. The new mothers would use it and then their breastmilk would dry up and they had no choice but to formula feed their infants. It sounded like that practice of giving away formula at the hospital went down for a while but it has come back and it's bad. I love Harkin for bringing this up!!!

They also spoke about how these low income women might have trouble breastfeeding because of the change in the last generation or two - women didn't used to work and now they do. And at low wage jobs they aren't allowed to pump or breastfeed like they would be at a salaried position with benefits. I don't think I heard any ideas to combat this but it was terrific to hear it discussed and to know that it's on Harkin's radar.

So that was the hearing. NOW is a great time to start writing Senators if you want anything included in the child nutrition reauth. That might include:

  1. Increasing the federal reimbursement rate.
  1. Eliminating the reduced cost lunch and making those kids free.
  1. Making WIC an entitlement.
  1. Getting rbGH milk out of schools.
  1. Let the USDA set nutrition standards on competitive foods.
  1. Get sodas out of schools.
  1. Get chocolate milk out of schools.
  1. More school gardens.
  1. More money for farm to school grants.

Originally posted to OrangeClouds115 on Wed Mar 18, 2009 at 07:11 PM PDT.

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