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What’s on the docket for school nutrition policy?

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and other government leaders discussed school nutrition plans at the National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference, held last week.
United States Department of Agriculture federal building sign
Photograph: Shutterstock

Anti-hunger advocates across the country met virtually last week for the National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference, an event co-sponsored by Feeding America and the Food Research and Action Center. Attendees heard from government officials, including Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who shared their plans for the nation’s child nutrition programs. Here are three takeaways from the conference. 

1. The USDA is working on additional school meal guidance amid COVID-19

The USDA is currently drafting meal guidance for the upcoming school year, which it hopes to make available next month, Acting Deputy Administrator for Child Nutrition Programs Sarah Smith-Holmes told attendees.

“This proposed policy framework for school meals would support the administration’s school reopening plan, ensure meal programs are responsive to public health requirements, provide schools with needed flexibilities to be responsive in an unpredictable environment, and establish clear expectations about providing nutritious food or with appropriate flexibilities,” Smith-Holmes said.

2. Child Nutrition Reauthorization is top of mind for the Senate Agriculture Committee 

U.S. Senators Debbie Stabenow and John Boozman, both of whom serve on the committee, shared that they would be urging Congress to take action on Child Nutrition Reauthorization sometime this year. “It's a priority of mine to see a child nutrition reauthorization cross the finish line and work with schools and families to ensure we are able to feed our most vulnerable children,” Boozman said. 

3. Equity will be a focus for the USDA

As part of his keynote address, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack discussed how the USDA is focusing on equity and will be reviewing each of its programs to see how it can work to eradicate any systematic racism. 

“We're going to look very closely and deeply into all of our programs to determine whether or not there is systemic racism in any of the programs, whether there are barriers in programs that prevent participation and, if so, how they can best be removed,” he said.

Vilsack also shared how the USDA and food advocates could approach free school meals for all post-pandemic: “I think it's up to all of us to evaluate the benefits of creating a universal free program and to specifically identify what those benefits would be and weigh them against the costs associated, so that you can make the case to any skeptic, that at the end of the day, we would be better off if that's the decision that's made to proceed in that way.”

Vilsack went on to highlight some of those benefits, such as improved education for K-12 students, greater school meal participation and potential savings on healthcare costs. “This is how I think you begin to think about this and begin to embrace the challenge that you have in establishing it at a high-enough priority and explaining the benefits in a way that you make a compelling case,” he said.

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