Back in November, I was contacted by a Public Affairs Specialist at USDA’s Food and Nutrition Services asking me if I’d like to conduct a 15-minute phone interview with USDA Under Secretary Kevin Concannon. Given that Mr. Concannon’s job includes overseeing federal child nutrition programs, including the National School Lunch Program, I was very excited to take advantage of this unexpected opportunity.
A few days later, I was told to email my questions in advance of the call. I knew this would take some of the spontaneity out of the phone conversation, but I nonetheless complied. Some time later I received the news that there would be no phone call with Mr. Concannon after all, and instead I would receive his written answers to my questions. Then, over a month after I was first contacted by USDA, I received a set of written responses which at first I was told to attribute only to an “unnamed USDA spokesperson.” When I expressed my surprise at this condition, I was told that a mistake had been made and that I am allowed to attribute the answers to the Under Secretary. When I asked whether he wrote the answers himself, I was told that he reviewed and approved them.
I’m sharing all of this background because the end result of this interview process is not quite what I had hoped for. In particular, the answer to the first (and, to my mind, most important) question was not particularly responsive, but due to the changed format I was unable to ask any follow-up questions. Nonetheless, I do want to express my sincere appreciation for the initial offer to interview the Under Secretary, the time spent by USDA staff preparing the answers and the time taken by the Under Secretary to review them.
Here is the Q&A:
TLT: I and many of my readers are very concerned about current attempts to weaken school food standards. What do you think the fate of the HHFKA standards will be, both after the FY2015 appropriations process [Ed. Note: by the time I received the answer to this question, the appropriations process was concluded] and the CNR [Child Nutrition Reauthorization] in the coming year? What, if anything, is the USDA currently doing to defend the current standards? And do you think there’s anything we parents can do, or is this now out of the hands of ordinary citizens?
Under Secretary Concannon: The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act has made a difference across our nation, with more than 90 percent of schools certified as adhering to the healthier standards and students receiving more nutritious meals as a result. These changes are working, and we expect to see continued improvements over time. Change can be difficult for anyone in any situation; we know that the generational changes we are seeking take time to implement.
We will continue to work with State and local partners to provide training and technical assistance to schools so they are equipped with tools and resources needed to prepare and serve meals and snacks that meet the new standards, and more importantly are accepted and consumed by students. We are also listening closely to feedback from schools as they implement these changes, and have provided policy flexibilities as a result. We will continue on this path. Our goal is to ensure the next generation has access to nutritious foods, along with proper education about healthy eating.
Parents have many opportunities to be involved in promoting and supporting the new standards. We encourage parents to work with their school district and local school wellness committee and learn more about the child nutrition initiatives and opportunities in their school. They may also become involved through the local PTO/PTA, participating in school board meetings, or volunteering in other capacities at school. Parent and student input can be an important tool for school food service operators to successfully implement the standards and provide acceptable meals that students will consume.
TLT: As you’re likely aware, I and a fellow advocate, Nancy Huehnegarth, are leading a campaign to keep chicken processed in China from being used in all federal child nutrition programs, including the NSLP. [Ed. note: by the time this question was answered, Nancy and I had already declared victory.] Our Change.org petition currently has over 328,000 signatures in support of this goal. Given China’s abysmal food safety record and the fact that no USDA inspectors will be on site, do you share our concerns about feeding kids chicken processed in that country?
Under Secretary Concannon: USDA is committed to ensuring that food served through the National School Lunch Program is both healthy and safe. Chicken provided to schools through the USDA Foods program is required to be processed in the United States per program regulations. Further, the substitution of non-domestic product is not allowed for any USDA Foods product. Schools can also purchase chicken items for their school meal service outside of USDA foods, from a variety of commercial vendors. The Buy American provision requires that for commercially-purchased foods, schools utilize foods where a substantial amount (51% or more) of the final processed product consists of domestically grown products. Schools with concerns about receiving products processed to any degree outside the United States may elect to draft their bid specifications to specifically request that their chicken products be processed 100% domestically. As a result of the fiscal year 2015 appropriations directive recently passed by Congress, the USDA is working with state agencies to provide additional guidance.
It is also important to know that all domestic and imported poultry must meet rigorous USDA standards before it can reach the public. USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has a stringent inspection system in place, which includes increased inspections at port-of-entry and annual audits of China’s system for processed chicken. The Food and Nutrition Service will continue to ensure State compliance with all applicable statutes and laws, including the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act, as we work to ensure the provision of nutritious school meals to children across America.
TLT: The Smart Snacks rules have been a huge step forward in getting junk food off of school campuses. However, as you know, when the rules were in draft form, the USDA floated two competing proposals for “exempt fundraisers.” In the first proposal, states would have had to seek USDA approval of whatever maximum number they chose, while in the second proposal, states would be given complete discretion, with no federal oversight. The USDA opted for the latter, and now some states are exploiting this loophole to the fullest. For example, Georgia recently voted to allow its schools to hold 30 junk food fundraisers a year, each lasting up to three days, which means any junk food may be sold to Georgia kids during the school day for fully one-half of the school year. What do you think about states like Georgia and, in retrospect, does the USDA now regret giving states so much autonomy?
Under Secretary Concannon: USDA thoughtfully considered and responded to public input on the Smart Snacks in School proposal, resulting in even stronger standards. USDA received nearly 250,000 stakeholder comments from parents, teachers, school food service professionals, and the food and beverage industry. Based on that feedback, the rule carefully balances science-based nutrition standards with practical and workable solutions to promote healthier eating on campus. As a result, USDA has provided flexibility for states to manage fundraisers at the state level. This is a local decision, as USDA understands that fundraisers are time-honored traditions that support local school activities, including class trips, athletic programs and the purchase of school supplies. States also have the flexibility to modify their fundraising policy at any time during the school year should they wish to do so, or in future years. USDA/FNS has been and will continue to work with our State partners to reach out to schools and other stakeholders in the school community to provide training, technical assistance and resources to ensure that they understand the new rules, and have the tools and information they need to succeed.
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