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Agricultural and Food Policy Updates

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Laura Caccioppoli
May 23, 2017

With much of my attention focused on the wobbly and uncertain path of the American Health Care Act as it moves through the United States Senate, I’ve had to remind myself there are other interesting and important developments to keep my eye on. So here are some updates on the food side of things.

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“Lunch shaming.” This food policy issue has been brought to the national media’s attention thanks to a law in New Mexico, which prohibits lunch shaming. What is lunch shaming, you ask? It is a practice used in school cafeterias to single-out children cannot pay a school lunch bill. Some examples include taking away the lunch of a child who has a debt in their account, making the child perform some sort of service – washing dishes, or providing a separate and different meal than other students receive. The most egregious (and wasteful) “lunch shaming” includes forcing a cafeteria worker to throw a child’s hot food in the trash. New Mexico passed a law which would prevent this type shaming by ending these practices. The law, Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights, was signed into law April 6, and would apply to all schools receiving federal subsidies for breaks and lunches. The law would require schools to communicate with the parents, and not the children, to help resolve debts, or if needed, sign up for federal meal assistance programs to help address the problem. Representative Michelle Grisham of New Mexico introduced similar legislation in the House of Representatives. Interestingly, the Department of Agriculture investigated this issue in 2010, but ultimately decided the issue should be addressed at the local level. Either way, the issue has received some national attention, and for good reason — however, we will need to keep our eyes on this legislation to see if it gains any traction, or if it dies in committee.

Another development I’ve been tracking is Sonny Perdue’s confirmation as Secretary of Agriculture. The Senate confirmed Mr. Perdue as Secretary of Agriculture a little over a month ago on April 25. You may remember Sonny Perdue as the Governor of Georgia who literally prayed for rain in 2007, a year of drought of Georgia. For those unfamiliar with Sonny Perdue, he is a veterinarian who returned to his native Georgia to become a key player in industrial farming and agribusiness. In fact, he himself launched several businesses selling fertilizer, grain elevators and a broad array of agricultural products. He raises questions about how he might handle some of the most controversial and pressing issues in agriculture and food such as pollution (in part due to fertilizer), impact of climate change on agriculture (he prayed for rain), as well as nutrition standards (he has close ties to many in BigAgra, which overwhelming lobby against attempts to reduce sugar consumption despite rising rates of obesity and the increasing prevalence of diabetes in our country).

Almost immediately after being sworn in, Perdue sought to “Make School Meals Great Again.” After starting his new job, Perdue announced that the United States Department of Agriculture will “provide greater flexibility in nutrition requirements for school meal programs.” While it did not fully weaken the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) pushed forward by Michelle Obama, it did allow for districts to obtain waivers to serve grain foods that are not whole grain rich. Additionally, it relaxed sodium standards moving forward (keeping in place the current sodium standard called “Target 1” while no longer requiring the stricter “Target 2” or “Target 3” to be met.) Additionally, Perdue allowed for 1 percent flavored milk to be served (HHFKA allowed flavored milk, but it was required to be fat-free). While it did not destroy the HHFKA, it did prevent future advances in school lunch nutrition.

The last development to be keep track of is the Farm Bill. The Farm Bill will be reauthorized in 2018 and there is already talk on the Hill about splitting the Farm Bill into separate components, one for agriculture and one for nutrition, which could have a devastating impact on both the ability to pass a Farm Bill, as well as funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) also known as food stamps. Speaker Paul Ryan has long championed making SNAP into a state block grant program — which if separated from the agricultural portion of the Farm Bill becomes a more viable political reality.

While food and agricultural policy might not be as closely watched as the debate surrounding the American Health Care Act, its impact on health is significant. From farm-related pollution, to health and nutrition standards, to creating food supply which can withstand climate change, food and agricultural policy will become increasingly important – so stay tuned.

Author: Laura Caccioppoli is a millennial and doctoral student in health policy at University of the Sciences. She has an MA in political science and a graduate certificate in nonprofit management from Villanova University. Laura serves on the board of The Consortium in Philadelphia and is Secretary of Americans for Democratic Action Southeastern Pennsylvania Chapter. Her research interests are in health and food policy, cultural competency and social justice

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