School Food Fight: My Interview with Senator Debbie Stabenow

Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), ranking member of the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry, has consistently been a strong advocate for federal child nutrition programs. Along with Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS), Stabenow recently helped broker a bipartisan agreement in the Senate which could effectively resolve the long-running battle over weakening school nutrition standards.

So when I was recently asked if I'd like to interview Senator Stabenow, I jumped at the opportunity. In our wide-ranging discussion below, read Stabenow's predictions on whether the Senate Child Nutrition Reauthorization compromise will become law, her thoughts on using the appropriations process to legislate nutrition standards, the controversy over school meal verification and much more:

TLT: In the past, the School Nutrition Association (SNA) and children's health advocates generally worked together on school food issues. But after the SNA decided to lobby to weaken some school nutrition standards, these groups were suddenly at odds with each other and the atmosphere became quite rancorous at times (e.g., the SNA refusing Sam Kass a speaking role at its 2014 annual convention.) School food - historically a bipartisan issue - also became unusually politicized, with House Republicans aligning with the SNA and in opposition to the White House.

I imagine all of this presented some real challenges for you and Chairman Roberts, and I'm curious to know how your committee was able to wade into this controversy and successfully broker a deal that all sides seem generally happy with?  What were the biggest hurdles?  How did you make sure all sides felt they were being heard?

DS: One of the things I enjoy most about the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee is our long history of trying to find common ground to solve the issues facing farmers, ranchers, and families. This bipartisan reauthorization is a great example of that.

While there have been some differences of opinion on issues, and there have been those who have tried to make providing healthy meals for children a partisan issue, Senator Roberts and I were able to bring people together around what is best for our children and families.

We kept the focus on the facts regarding childhood obesity and the important role that our schools play in giving our children a healthy start in life. And, we kept our focus on how we can continue moving forward with smart, science-based nutrition policies. As a result, it become evident that whatever differences did exist were small compared to what we could agree on.

TLT: As you know, there was particular controversy surrounding the current requirement that kids take a 1/2 cup serving of fruits or vegetables at lunch, but you've been a real champion of keeping this provision intact. Why was this requirement so important to you? And are you hopeful that forthcoming guidance on salad bars and sharing tables can allay the SNA's concerns about food waste?

DS: As we know, our children's health and well-being are at a crossroads. Today, about one in three children and teens are either overweight or obese. If we want to give our children a fair shot to be healthy and successful then we must keep moving forward with smart nutrition policies - like the requirement that school meals include a half cup of fruit and vegetables. When children begin eating healthier at a younger age, it helps build lifelong habits. Our children are worth this investment.

I do believe the guidance on salad bars and share tables will be helpful for the schools that are having challenges, but let's not forget that many schools are already using salad bars and having great success in getting children excited about fruits and vegetables.  I've visited many schools in Michigan and have seen children of all ages excited to take broccoli and spinach or carrots, not because they have to take it, but because they want to try it. This is exactly the type of excitement around food that I am hopeful this bill will help build on.

TLT: Although the Senate bill gives schools more flexibility on whole grains, overall it preserves and respects the science-based nutrition standards promulgated by the USDA in accordance with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.  What do you think of recent Congressional efforts to alter or weaken school nutrition standards via the appropriations process?

DS: Congress should not be legislating nutrition standards. That role should be left to nutrition and public health experts and be based on sound science. That's one reason why this bill is so important. We focused on providing schools the tools they need be successful, without jeopardizing the healthfulness of school meals. Most importantly, it will lock in an agreement on nutrition standards for five years. That's good for our children and the hardworking school food service staffs who need certainty to do their jobs effectively.

TLT: A lot of media attention was focused on the fight over school meal nutrition standards, but the Senate bill would improve child nutrition in many other important ways. Can you speak to some of these other provisions and why you think they're important?

DS: Absolutely. This bill makes so many important investments in areas that help children and families. For example, we expand WIC to serve children up to their 6th birthday - right now, they lose eligibility once they turn five, even if they haven't enrolled in kindergarten yet. That added year ensures children have access to healthy, nutritious food during a critical stage of their development.

We also took steps to ensure young children in day care have access to healthy snacks if they are in care for long hours. Child care professionals have been working to make this change to help children's health for nearly 35 years!

We also made strides in improving the summer meal program to ensure children have access to meals when school is out for the summer and made investments in programs like Farm to School and infrastructure updates in kitchens and cafeterias to help serve more fresh, healthy foods!

TLT:  The Senate bill would strengthen and broaden the verification process for families seeking federal school meal assistance. But anti-hunger advocates worry these changes will cause some eligible kids (particularly those who are homeless, migrant or for whom English is not their family's primary language) to lose access to free or reduced price meals [because their parents or guardians will fail to respond to follow-up requests for information]. Can you explain why you feel the verification changes still need to be made, and why you think the Senate bill's proposal is the best solution?

DS: I am committed to doing everything possible to make sure that any changes made will not cause children who are eligible for free or reduced-price meals to lose access to them. We took a very deliberate approach to crafting the provision on verification to focus more on data matching and the use of technology - which is both more accurate and reduces the chance that an eligible child will lose access to meals because of paperwork. I think this will continue to improve the accuracy of the programs over time.  We need to make sure these programs are run properly, while also helping those children who are in need.

TLT: How do you think the Senate's proposal will fare in the House - do you think the House Education & Workforce Committee is likely to sign on to the Senate bill or to come up with its own?  And in general, do you think the CNR will be wrapped up in 2016?

DS: The House Education & Workforce Committee is working on their own proposal and we will evaluate their bill when it is available. They have a high bar to reach considering the Senate plan was passed unanimously out of Committee and is supported by such a broad range of stakeholders - everyone ranging from retired military leaders to the public health community to anti-hunger groups to school food service directors.

TLT: In general, how would you assess the state of school food in America in 2016?  

DS: We're certainly moving in the right direction, and I'm proud that the Senate bill keeps up that momentum. The lunch trays I see today are a marked improvement over what I ate in school! Students today are so creative and engaged around food and nutrition.  I recently had a football player at a high school in Detroit tell me that after practice he loves running over to the school garden and plucking fresh strawberries as a quick snack. This type of enthusiasm around healthy eating is very encouraging!

TLT: Is there anything else you'd like to share with readers about the CNR or school food in particular?

DS: As I mentioned before, we are at a crossroads when it comes to our children's health. We're facing a dual public health crisis - on the one hand, the childhood obesity epidemic is threatening the health and security of our children and our nation. And on the other, millions of children are struggling with hunger every day.

We know that kids can't learn, grow, and succeed if they are chronically hungry or unable to receive good nutrition. This bill is an important step forward and provides the tools necessary to tackles these issues head on.  But we aren't finished until all of us make the commitment to end childhood hunger and give every child the chance for a healthy, successful future.

This post originally appeared on The Lunch Tray.